"The Big Thirst." By Charles Fishman. Free Press. 388 pages. $26.99.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor came to speak to my law school class in 2008, she offered a curious suggestion for the aspiring lawyers in the audience: Take a course on water law.
It's not hard to imagine O'Connor's perspective. As an Arizonan, she's intimately familiar with the water stresses caused by an arid landscape and a burgeoning population. For West Virginia, however, the water crisis seems less acute -- we have a stable population and ample sources to drink, bathe and water our lawns.
As luck would have it, I was enrolled in a course on international water law at the time O'Connor made her suggestion. Many of those lessons came back when reading Charles Fishman's engaging "The Big Thirst."
In my water law class, we learned about the challenges of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. There, Turkey has raised the ire of its neighbors by building dams on the river, creating lesser flow for its downstream neighbors' agricultural use.
For example, I remembered that one study predicted that more future wars will be fought over water than any other reason -- the water supply remains stable, but populations increase. In an example from popular culture, the villain in the recent James Bond film "Quantum of Solace" tries to corner the water supply in Bolivia.
Thankfully, Fishman is an optimist. Though population is booming, he argues that humans are ably equipped to meet the coming challenge. In fact, in some ways, we Americans already have. "The United States uses less water today than it did in 1980," Fishman writes. The population of the United States has grown 70 million during that period, but overall American water consumption has actually decreased.
That said, we still use a lot of water. The United States uses more water each day than it uses oil in a year. But unlike oil, water is renewable -- the water we use to bathe will be recycled into drinking water, recycled to wash our clothes, and be used countless times over.