Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America

Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America
Chris Wood
Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books
2008, 376 pages

Chris Wood’s Dry Spring is a politically astute and journalistically refined look at the upcoming water woes of the new world. Wood, a veteran international journalist and former editor of Maclean’s, has written for The Globe and Mail, the Financial Post and The Walrus. His highly informative, eleven-chapter volume looks at the ways in which rising temperatures are leading to severe water scarcity across the world. Wood convincingly demonstrates that the “by-products of our industrial society have penetrated the deepest oceans, highest peaks and furthest poles in the form of rising ambient temperatures, scraps of plastic and an alphabet soup of chemicals. Our challenge now is to survive our own success.”

Dry Spring explores the effects of increasing water depletion, which Wood warns will devastate communities over the next 25 years. He combines an in- depth literature review with first-hand interviews of those directly involved with – and often adversely affected by – changes in the hydrological cycle. His insightful and well-informed perspective of the threatening water crisis emphasizes the importance of this sacred element that provides life and drives the economy.

Wood identifies two possible strategies to address our uncertain freshwater future. We can build more dams, reservoirs, river diversions, aqueducts, canals, pipelines, wells, recycling plants and desalination facilities. Alternately, “we can choose how we use what we have now.” The latter, an approach Wood advocates, involves changing the way we manage our watersheds; using ecologically sound appliances and irrigation techniques; and changing our markets, our bookkeeping, and the laws that undervalue this life- giving resource.

The first seven chapters present case studies of impending water hot spots. From forest fires to droughts and desertification, from floods and rising waters to planetary defrost and the future of the Great Lakes, and from the overdraft of the Colorado River to the overconsumption in the Alberta foothills, Wood explores a range of global and local repercussions of water misuse. Collectively, these examples reveal the increasing volatility and severity of weather as the “differences among the seasons themselves appear to be breaking down.”

In Chapter 8, “Outlook to 2030: Wild and Wilder,” Wood discusses the future of North America’s continental climate. “America is getting drier; its wealthiest and fastest-growing states, much drier. And Canada is getting wetter,” he says. Wood goes on in the next chapter to conclude that “finding more water from somewhere, or constructing even larger reservoirs to hold it, represents the crudest possible way to prepare for the unprecedented shortages and unexpected surpluses that our changing weather holds in store.” In response, in Chapter 10 he identifies “solutions that might be both more effective and much cheaper than any number of additional pipes, dams, and wells.”

Wood provides a myriad of potential approaches to address this complex policy issue. Market solutions, despite being contentious for the commodification of water they propose, are foremost amongst them. He argues for the need to bring “natural services ‘onto the books’ of our conventional economy.” Furthermore, he believes that a change in water pricing would lead to greater efficiency in the market by dramatically changing incentives: “By one estimate, charging North Americans the full, real cost of water would help us double our use of current amounts without building a single new dam, drowning one more valley, digging any new wells, running another pipeline or draining anyone’s field of springs.”

Besides pricing-related approaches, Wood also recommends trading water rights, detaching water from any particular parcel of land, and making it available for a variety of purposes. One of his strongest examples of successful water conservation and restoration policies is from New York. Rather than spending $6.4-billion in new filtration plants, the government invested less than $1-billion to pay landowners in the Catskill Mountains, where most of New York City’s water is collected, to manage the land in ways that reduced erosion and improved natural filtering. These conservation policies brought the city’s water quality up to federal standards.

Wood goes on to identify a number of other potential solutions. These include restricting water-use for lawns and gardens, xeriscaping, legal requirements to purchase water-conservation appliances, increasing the cost of disposing of dirty water and promoting trade in water of various qualities, moving to a more sustainable form of agriculture that cuts down on soil erosion, and the US’s “no net loss” wetlands rule, which “requires that the loss to development of any wetlands under federal jurisdiction be mitigated by the creation or restoration of at least as much comparable wetland elsewhere.”

Although several of Wood’s solutions are considered controversial in some circles, the looming water crisis calls for ingenuity and a diversity of tactics. It is exactly for its richness in both of these qualities that this book is a must-read.

David Wellhauser is the spokesperson for Waterlooians.ca, a community group dedicated to ensuring the environmental, economic and social health of Waterloo, Ontario. He has a master’s degree in political science and public administration

Originally published in Alternatives Journal’s Subscribe to Alternatives Today!