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Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping And The Fate Of America's Fresh Waters 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-1559634007
ISBN-10: 1559634006
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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

In the high plains of Texas the farmers who grow cotton, alfalfa and other crops are entitled by law to as much underground water as they can reasonably use. No matter that this water comes from the Ogallala Aquifer, that vast underground reservoir whose levels have dropped precipitously since 1940. No matter that the overpumping threatens eventually to put thousands of farmers across seven states out of business. The illusion, codified in the law not just in Texas but in much of the U.S., is that groundwater is somehow boundless, or in a category apart from lakes, rivers and streams, and ought not be regulated, even for the common good. Now comes Robert Glennon to puncture this illusion, in a book as rich in detail as it is devastating in its argument. Its focus on groundwater brings overdue attention to a category that accounts for nearly a quarter of American freshwater use. Its title, Water Follies, sets the tone for tales that can be tragicomic; this is a book about water being squandered, so it is also, as the author puts it, a book about "human foibles, including greed, stubbornness, and especially, the unlimited human capacity to ignore reality." Take, for example, his story of the fast-food french fry. It used to be that potatoes were grown on unirrigated land, he writes, but Americans' love of processed foods changed that. Uneven moisture leads to small, knobby, misshapen potatoes, so most American growers, even in places such as Minnesota, routinely irrigate their lands, to produce products acceptable to the industry and customers like McDonald's. But in Minnesota the groundwater that farmers pump for potatoes turned out to be the same water that helps to sustain the Straight River, a major trout fishery. Even modest pumping for potatoes, a federal study eventually concluded, had the potential to reduce the river's flow by one third during irrigation season, with adverse impact on the brown trout. For now, the trout are not in danger, but that could change if Minnesota were to approve applications from farmers still eager to see potato planting and irrigation widen. "One long-term answer, of course," Glennon notes, with characteristic wryness, "is for us, as American consumers, to accept french fries that have slightly different colors, or minor discolorations, or even ones that are not long enough to stick out from a super-size carton." Farmers are not the only ones who get a hard time for their shortsightedness. Bottled-water purveyors, particularly Perrier, are tarred for their pursuit, in places such as Wisconsin, of cool, underground (and highly profitable) springwater in quantities so vast as to prove devastating to the ecology of nearby rivers. The gold-mining industry is called to account for "dewatering" operations in, for example, Nevada, where it makes way for its deep operations by pumping away groundwater at a stunning rate. And planners in Tampa, Fla., and San Antonio, Tex., come under fire for their cavalier reliance on perishable underground sources such as Texas's Edwards Aquifer to fuel development they are finding difficult to sustain. The cumulative picture painted by the author is a grim one. Already four states-- Florida, Nebraska, Kansas and Mississippi-- use more groundwater than surface water, and more and more are looking underground to support growing populations. Becoming equally apparent are the consequences in dry rivers, land subsidence, and aquifers drawn down far faster than they can ever be recharged. "The country cannot sustain even the current levels of groundwater use," Glennon writes, "never mind the projected increases in groundwater consumption over the next two decades." Why is it that groundwater has become subject to such abuse? One reason, of course, is that buried below the surface, it is hidden from the kind of relentless monitoring that in recent decades has helped clean up rivers such as the Erie and the Hudson. But Glennon, a professor of law at the University of Arizona, finds buried in the law some further reasons for the neglect. Even now, he says, most American laws affecting groundwater do not recognize any connection between underground and surface waters, despite abundant evidence of such links. They remain rooted in 19th-century ideas that underground flows were something so mysterious that they could not be understood, an assumption that has been translated into lax or nonexistent regulation. In most parts of the U.S., the author points out, surface water is subject to doctrines of riparian law or prior appropriation, with water rights carefully parceled out to various claimants. Groundwater, in contrast, is most often subject to the rule of capture, which, as Glennon observes, essentially means that "the biggest pump wins," notwithstanding the impact on surface water or the aquifer itself. To Glennon, the plight of the country's groundwater has come increasingly to represent what biologist Garrett Hardin called "the tragedy of the commons," a direct result of allowing citizens unlimited use of a common area. Among his recommendations for the future is an immediate halt to unregulated groundwater pumping. To some ears, especially those of high-plains Texas farmers, that is certain to sound like an unconscionable assault on property rights. But Water Follies makes the case that groundwater is something that we all should regard as very public indeed.

Douglas Jehl, a reporter for the New York Times, writes frequently on water issues for that publication. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Water Follies deserves a place alongside the late Marc Reisner's classic Cadillac Desert."

"a lively account of hydrology."
(The New York Review of Books)

"if you want to scare yourself silly, read Water Follies, by Robert Jerome Glennon. In it you'll learn how America is irrigating itself to death—just like the Sumerians—while sucking its groundwater aquifers dry."
(The Globe and Mail)

"Even if you are not working with water issues, you should read this book for a wider awareness of the depth and importance of groundwater impacts, right down to the bottle of water you are probably drinking right now."
(Conservation in Practice)

"To law professor Robert Glennon, the names Perrier and Poland pack a fearful punch, for they and the other huge producers of bottled water are feeding a craze that puts the environment on the brink of disaster."
(Publishers Weekly)

"...a book as rich in detail as it is devastating in its argument."
(Scientific American)

See all Editorial Reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Island Press; 1st edition (January 14, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1559634006
  • ISBN-13: 978-1559634007
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #500,613 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By heygrey on November 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Water Follies is fascinating--and frightening--and should be required reading for all Americans. Don't be put off by the pedantic subtitle: It's easy reading. Scholarly but accessible. Enlightening but not preachy. Glennon will pull you into the groundwater but his wry sense of humor will keep you from drowning.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Boston Jake on November 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I thought I had a pretty good understanding of issues relating to fresh water and the environment. I didn't, but I do now after reading Water Follies.
This is a very important book for anyone interested in the environment. I am pretty well read on environmental topics and was surprised by how much I learned from Glennon's very readable book.
The author explains very clearly the interrelationships among ground water, lakes, rivers, and the damage we have done and are doing to the environment through mindless groundwater pumping.
Fresh water shortages and ground water pumping are going to be front page stories over the next few years. Water Follies will enable you to appreciate the issues involved and to develop a well informed opinion.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on December 8, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping And The Fate Of America's Fresh Waters by Robert Glennon (Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy, University of Arizona) is a timely and much needed wake-up call concerning the all-too-frequent pollution and misuse of the groundwater tables that America relies upon for fresh drinking water. Consisting of a selection of anecdotes about how the Santa Cruz River in Tucson went dry, the rampant greed in Tampa Bay, watershed initiatives concerning Massachusetts' Ipswitch River Basin, and a great deal more, Water Follies is a clarion warning and very strongly recommended contribution for Environmental Studies reference collections.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Ian B. Leary on August 23, 2006
Format: Paperback
Glennon writes in plain English to warn Americans of the growing danger under our feet. We are pumping groundwater, the gift of fresh and wholesome well water, at an unsustainable rate across the country. Glennon ties groundwater to surface water and illustrates in terms that are as accessible as they are urgent that the United States is headed for a crisis of our own making.

Using a number of case studies, Glennon gives us a glimpse of the American approach to ground water. Throughout much of the US, ground water is considered legally separate from surface water. Within this legal framework, there are few restrictions placed on the use (and abuse) of a critical resource that respects neither property lines nor political boundaries. Indeed, the law encourages abuse with a use-it-or-lose it philosophy to ownership of ground water. Whoever pumps the most wins. Unfortunately, we are pumping so much ground water that rivers, lakes, and ponds across the nation are running dry--ruining many local ecosystems in the process and setting ourselves up for major economic ramifications. With the studies Glennon has chosen, he shows us the consequences of unrestricted ground water pumping for lawns, for agricultural uses, and in support of mining. In every case, Glennon demonstrates that we are doing grave damage to ourselves with our profligate pumping.

This book belongs on the reading list of all high school and college students, regardless of major or course of study.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on August 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
If we say "Glennon covers all the ground" in a book about water, will the reader be confused? Let's take the risk, since that is precisely what the author does in this excellent study. From the ways in which water collects or flows on the land's surface to the movement of water deep in the earth, Glennon carefully explains how water accumulates. He describes farm, mining and even water for scenic tourist views.Water consumption has been an economic, social and legal issue since the colonies were founded almost four centuries ago.

The legacy of those early efforts to distribute water to thirsty farms and communities is a central theme of this book. As settlement moved westward, readily available water waned. Contention arose between early settlers and those arriving later. Farm use of water was challenged by mining and industry as communities grew. In the West, as available surface water was used or claimed, fresh sources were sought. These proved to be buried deep beneath the surface - "ground water". Ground water was a mysterious resource to many - it still is, according to Glennon. Although it's known that, like streams, ground water reserves must be "recharged", only a little is understood about the rate of inflow or, too often, the source of refreshment. In a nation that consumes over 5000 litres per person per day, the availability of fresh water is a major consideration.

Glennon presents a string of vignettes of water issues in the USA. The selection process allows him to present a spectrum of issues surrounding water availability and use. Although naturally focussing his study in the West where availability and variations in types of demand complicate an already complex area.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Glennon is a gifted writer who sucks you in from the opening pages of the introduction and makes you care about the outcomes of the stories he presents. In a witty and accessible style he tells the alarming story of the devastating effects of groundwater pumping, effects that are not limited to the desert areas of this country. This is a book for all of us! Although engaging and readable the book is packed with enough information to provide me (not a legal or environmental scholar) with the data I need to speak in an informed fashion to tell decision makers and friends that we need to do something about this before it's too late.
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