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Book Review: Aqua Shock by Susan Marks

 You always knew of water supply and water quality problems in the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the developing world. But here is the U.S. we turn on the tap, get our water, and don't really think about it.

 After reading Aqua Shock, you will be convinced that this blissful ignorance is going to change.

 When you do think of US water shortages, perhaps you assume that  are this is a feature of the West—especially the arid region between the Sierras and Rockies. Indeed it is; but water shortages are also occurring in areas we think of as wet: the Pacific Northwest (Klamath river), Florida, Wisconsin, and even Memphis (on the MIssissippi River) have all had recent or ongoing water crises.

While the US is rich in water compared to many other countries, our resources suffer from poor management. This is the result of many factors: fragmented legal jurisdictions, aging infrastructure, environmental changes outpacing older collection and treatment systems, and historically poor understanding of resources. (As one salient example: 18 million acre-feet of Colorado River water have been allocated, by legally-binding agreements, to various localities. The actual flow of the river is only about 12 million acre-feet per year, and some of this is lost to evaporation). The bottom line is that we have to engage in some radical improvements to (and major investments in) our handling of water resources, or we are headed for disaster.

There are signs that we are learning how to do better, at least in some localities. The city of El Paso, faced with looming shortages, instituted an aggressive program of conservation and reclamation; they were able to reduce their water consumption by 1/3. Coastal cities are learning to design new construction so that rain run-off can recharge groundwater supplies, rather than being diverted into the sewer and lost as discharge into the river or ocean. 

Each chapter of Aqua Shock explores provocative issues in the arena of water supplies, drinking water safety (not as reliable as most of us think), and politics, with a blistering array of facts, and minimum of rhetoric. Marks, a professional journalist, brings a refreshing feature-editor's punch to the each chapter's theme. Attention-grabbing bullet points, vivid anecdotes, and copious endnotes documenting easy-to-check online sources, make this a well-rounded presentation for the general reader, and (potentially) an inspiring source of term-paper topics for high school or college classes. 

For investors, there is a short list (too short, perhaps) of water-resource companies, and even mutual funds that have a high proportion of investments in this sector (as of January 2009). By an apparent oversight,  ETF's that cover the sector— CGW, FIW, PHO and PIO— are not mentioned.

My one criticism of the format is that it needs more graphics: there are, by necessity, a lot of numbers which would spring to life with the addition of simple graphs; process descriptions which would love to be illuminated by diagrams. (I have made this same criticism of other Bloomberg books; is it their editorial policy?)


Aqua Shock is available from Bloomberg Press.