Friday, April 12, 2024

Water, Water Everywhere: Charles Fishman’s Festival Discussion

As soon as he deplaned yesterday for his lecture at Festival of the Arts Boca, Charles Fishman made a beeline for the Wastewater Treatment Plant. You know, as tourists do.

“I find them highly entertaining,” Fishman said, referring—yes, indeed—to wastewater treatment plants. Of course, it’s a good thing somebody finds these infrastructural necessities interesting, and after last night’s enlightening talk on the looming water scarcity, there is evidently no better advocate for them than Fishman. He reportedly spent a couple of hours at the plant yesterday, and he came away with some quietly alarming statistics. The average American, Fishman said, uses 83 gallons of water per day. A Boca Ratonian uses 254 gallons per day, more than triple the national average—a figure owing largely to our immaculately maintained golf courses and, most especially, our lawns, which we over-water. Fishman, only half-joking, referred to Boca as “crazytown” for our profligate consumption of H20. It is, in fact, “distinctive from the rest of the nation,” which in this case is no compliment.

Fishman cares about water, and he cares about Florida. He’s essentially a native of the state—he moved to Miami as a first-grader—and he’s a product of the Miami-Dade public school system. At the lectern last night, he dressed like a returning Floridian, sporting jeans and a Key West baseball cap, as he discussed the revelations and insights gleaned from the research and writing of his 2012 book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, which has become required freshman reading at 125 colleges and universities.

We are in the twilight, Fishman said, of the “golden age of water,” where for 100 years our water was unlimited, safe and basically free. Climate change and various human interventions to the water supply are on the verge of rendering water costlier than ever. It’s already flowing to the more privileged places on Earth and leaving others behind, leading to some acrid ironies. On the South Pacific country of Fiji, where Fiji Water is exported, 53 percent of its islanders don’t have safe drinking water. In parts of Delhi, the jet-black Yamuna River contains 10 million ecoli for every 4 ounces of water; it’s considered unsafe if it even splashes a person. India as a whole spends 2 percent of its GDP treating diarrhea from people drinking polluted water—that’s $1 billion a week.

Many of the most eye-opening moments from Fishman’s presentation came from his rattling off of stats like this. Here are a few others:

• 2.3 billion bottles of water are consumed in a week in the U.S., but only 29 percent of them are recycled

• Bottled water is a $35 billion industry in the U.S.

• Every Google search requires two tablespoons of water—an average of 2.8 million gallons of water per hour

Photo credit: StoryWorkz

But Fishman’s lecture ultimately was a hopeful one. He discussed some of the nation’s “water smart” enclaves, which can be a model for the rest of industrialized America. Like Las Vegas, which despite the ostentatious use of water in its grand hotels has managed to recycle 94 percent of water back to Lake Mead through sound government ordinances. Or Deerborn, Michigan, where Ford Motor Company, by analyzing the water overuse in its factories, managed to save some 220 gallons per the production of each car. Or Modesto, California, where Carnation’s evaporated milk factory runs its facility on the water removed from its milk products, essentially turning itself into a “zero water facility.”

Florida was nowhere to be found in Fishman’s roundup of states thinking creatively about water conservation, but the solutions are in front us, he said. Debunking the myth of a “global water crisis,” Fishman argues that all water problems are local, and all we need are residents that care, and state and local governments that follow suit. His remedies included reducing sprinkler usage by 25 percent, electing leaders that support water use reforms, limiting unfettered development that lacks a plan for water sustainability, and paying for local media (hear, hear!), whose reporters serve as watchdogs for these issues.

I will add that water isn’t a partisan issue, or at least it shouldn’t be; we all rely on it, no matter how we vote, and at the risk of repeating a cliché, we’re all in this together. I, for one, can start by Googling more responsibly.

For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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