The Worldwide 'Thirst' For Clean Drinking Water Investigative reporter Charles Fishman says the past 100 years have been the golden age of water in the developed world — but now that's about to change. He profiles communities grappling with water shortages and details the efforts to conserve water in The Big Thirst.
NPR logo

The Worldwide 'Thirst' For Clean Drinking Water

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Worldwide 'Thirst' For Clean Drinking Water

The Worldwide 'Thirst' For Clean Drinking Water

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The golden age of water is coming to an end, the age when we could assume we have an unlimited supply of cheap and safe water, writes my guest, journalist Charles Fishman. He says everything about water is about to change: how we use it, how we share it, how we think about it.

His new book, "The Big Thirst," lays out the problems, describes this new era of water we're entering and examines how some cities, businesses and individuals are starting to rethink and redesign their water usage.

Fishman is also the author of the bestseller "The Wal-Mart Effect," which will soon be published in a new edition. Since 1996, he's worked for the business magazine Fast Company.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

(Technical difficulties)

GROSS: I'm sorry that we're having a technical problem with the interview that I recorded with Charles Fishman last week, but we'll have that for you in a moment. And again, he's the author of the book "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." And I will now ask our engineer if we're ready with the tape, and we're not yet.

So I'll tell you he's also the author of a book called "The Wal-Mart Effect," which is all about Wal-Mart, that was a bestseller. And there's a new edition coming out, actually, very soon. So - but what we're going to be talking about the smart use of water, how we have to rethink how we use water in order to make sure that we have clean and abundant water, which is something we can no longer take for granted.

So let's see if we're ready to go with that. You know, this is one of the issues with new technology. You have this, like, great new digital technology, and occasionally it just kind of chokes up and doesn't give you what you put in it. And we appear to be in one of those moments now.

So putting me in the position of having to figure out what I want to tell you. So here's something I want to tell you, that Tina Fey is going to be our guest on Wednesday's FRESH AIR. So you might want to make a note about that. As you probably know, she has a new memoir that's been published. So we'll be talking to her about that and about her show, "30 Rock."

So now we are ready to present the interview with Charles Fishman, author of the new book "The Big Thirst."

Charles Fishman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You say water is the secret ingredient in our fuel-hungry society. What are some of the hidden uses of water that either we don't know about or we don't think about?

Mr. CHARLES FISHMAN (Author, "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water"): Well, water shows up in all kinds of places. So when we launch the space shuttle, I'm sure anybody who's watched a space shuttle launch sees the launch pad covered in this enormous cascade of water as the engines light.

And you would naturally think that that has something to do with the heat and the flame. In fact, the water on the launch pad of a space shuttle launch is a sound-dampening mechanism for the space shuttle. The space shuttle is so loud that the sound would ricochet off the concrete and metal launch pad and tear the space shuttle apart, literally destroy it, before it cleared the pad without the water.

Water is the secret ingredient in how your microwave oven works. Your microwave oven doesn't actually cook food: It spins the water molecules in your food. It spins them up to a billion times a second.

Water happens to absorb microwave frequencies. And so the microwave oven heats the water, and the water heats the food. That's why microwave pizza tends to be a little soggy.

GROSS: Well, you say electricity power plants are the biggest consumers of water.

Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, power plants in the United States use something like five times the amount of water that all the homes in the United States use. In fact, a typical American uses 99 gallons of water a day, real water, for things like washing and cooking and toilet flushing.

The electricity that a typical American uses, just at home, each individual American, is 250 gallons of water a day. The electricity we use requires 250 gallons of water to generate.

So your flat-screen TV has a little hidden water spigot running to it, 10 gallons of water an hour every hour of every day just to power our computers and our refrigerators and our washing machines at home, which is kind of remarkable.

And that's not hydropower. That's electricity from coal and nuclear and natural-gas-fired electric plants, which use water to make steam and to cool, you know, cool nuclear reactors and things like that, so truly remarkable.

GROSS: And that little water spout in your flat-screen TV, that's figurative, right? You're just talking about electricity.

Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, it is, absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There isn't really water being pumped into it.

Mr. FISHMAN: No, there is no water spigot to your flat-screen TV. But that's the point. It's a kind of a hidden use that we never acknowledge.

In fact, one of the biggest uses of water, which is really a signal of the profligacy with which we treat water, one of the biggest uses in the United States is simply leakage. One of our six gallons of water acquired, treated and pumped by water utilities in the United States leaks back into the ground before anybody can use it.

So you fill the reservoir, or you pump the water out of the aquifer or out of the river, you treat it to drinking-water standards, you pump it out with expensive electricity and big pumps into pipes, and then one out of six gallons leaks before it can get to a home or business and be used. And that actually constitutes a significant quote-unquote use of water in the United States.

GROSS: Now, you say you hope we're on the verge of a second water revolution, the first water revolution being the delivery of safe, drinkable, piped-in water into your home that you could rely on. That changed the United States because people weren't dying from germs in the water.

Mr. FISHMAN: Water-borne diseases, right.

GROSS: Yeah, so what's the second revolution that you're hoping will happen?

Mr. FISHMAN: I think we're leaving what I think of as the last 100 years has been the golden age of water in the developed world: water that has been safe, unlimited and essentially free.

Your 17-year-old's shower may irritate you because it's really long, but you don't shout: Get out of the shower because of the water bill. That era is over. We will not, going forward, have water that has all three of those qualities at the same time: unlimited, unthinkingly inexpensive and safe.

We'll have plenty of safe water for drinking, but we'll think differently about water for things like watering the lawn or washing our cars or flushing our toilets.

I think we're going to move from an ear of abundant, safe and free to an era of smart water. The way we use water now is, in fact, kind of dumb. We use purified drinking water to flush our toilets and water our lawns. That doesn't make any sense.

In an era of scarcity, we won't need to limit whether we have water to boil our pasta, you know, or take a bath, but we will think differently about a whole portfolios of waters. There will be different kinds of waters for different uses.

And water itself will get smart. The reason one out of six gallons of water leaks away - that are provided by water utilities, without anybody using it - is that the water utility companies are run the way they were 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. There's no technology.

They don't understand what's going on in their own pipes. And so as technology allows us to see what's happening to the water in the water system, whether it's in a factory, university or whole ecosystem, we'll be able to manage that water much more smartly. And so our use of water will get smarter, and the water itself will get smarter.

GROSS: Well, let's look at an example that you write about in your book, which is called "The Big Thirst," and I'm thinking of Las Vegas. First of all the absurdity that Las Vegas is, like, the driest city in the United States, but it's also the two-mile stretch with the most, like, you know, aquariums and water entertainment, incredible fountains. Let me see if I - oh, yeah, 100 sharks and eight bottle-nosed dolphins live in this two-mile strip of the desert, kind of amazing.

But there's been a lot of water innovation in Las Vegas. Let's talk about grass. There has been a lot of grass in Las Vegas, and now there's a penalty for having grass.

Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, Las Vegas is literally the driest city of the 280 largest cities in America, which is kind of amazing. It gets four inches of rain a year.

And 30 years ago, Las Vegas was run much the way every other city in America was run: People watered their lawns whenever they wanted. They washed their cars whenever they wanted.

And a woman became the head of water in Las Vegas and the larger Las Vegas municipal area, Patricia Mulroy, and she looked at the pace of growth of the city and the fact that Las Vegas takes all its water from a single source, Lake Mead, and that water is limited by federal law to a specific amount. In the last...

GROSS: The amount that Las Vegas can take is limited?

Mr. FISHMAN: The amount that Las Vegas can take is strictly limited by federal law. It's 300,000 acre-feet, for whatever that means to listeners. That lowers Lake Mead two feet a year, three feet a year. The lake actually evaporates more water than Las Vegas takes.

And she saw how fast her city was growing, and she knew there was no other source of water for the city. And so thinking ahead, she started working on rules that would, over time, change the culture in Las Vegas. And she has succeeded dramatically.

So, for instance, Las Vegas will pay you $40,000 an acre to take out your lawn. It's not a penalty; it's an incentive. If you have a front lawn, and it's a half-an-acre, you can get $20,000 by pulling out the grass and replacing it with zero-scaping.

GROSS: Zero-scaping?

Mr. FISHMAN: It's called zero-scaping, and it's desert landscape, you know, rocks and native plants, cactuses and native bushes.

GROSS: Now, that sounds like a very expensive proposition for the city. Does the city lose money in the long run?

Mr. FISHMAN: It's not nearly as expensive in a place like Las Vegas, which is a desert, which only gets four inches of water a year, four inches of rain a year. It's not nearly as expensive as acquiring the next gallon of water.

It is illegal to let your sprinkler, your lawn sprinkler, spray on a sidewalk or a road. It is illegal to empty your swimming pool in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas has swimming pools, or your hot tub into a storm drawn. You must contrive a mechanism for emptying your swimming pool into the sanitary sewer.

Las Vegas, over time, has come to recapture almost all of the water used anywhere indoors. So you go to one of the beautiful hotels and take a 20-minute shower, it seems like you're squandering water, but in fact all that water is collected and sent right back to Lake Mead. Las Vegas' recycling rate is 94 percent.

So in fact, over time, although Las Vegas has what was, for a long time, the largest fountain on Earth and, as you said, shark aquariums and a lagoon that re-create the canals of Venice right on the strip, New York Harbor right on the Strip filled with water, it sort of looks water-ostentatious, in fact over the last 20 years, per-person water use in Vegas has fallen 100 gallons.

GROSS: Because of the recycling?

Mr. FISHMAN: Because of all of these things, because people dont water their lawns anymore, because they're very careful about recapturing water that would otherwise be lost. Las Vegas has increased in size by 50 percent in the last 10 years, and it uses no more water today than it did in the year 2000.

GROSS: So one of the things you write about in your Vegas chapter is how golf courses have changed in order to conserve water because it's hard having a lush, grassy, green golf course in the desert, and it was using a lot of water. So tell us a little bit about some of the changes that were made to make the golf course more efficient in its use of water.

Mr. FISHMAN: Angel Park is a public golf course in Las Vegas. It's not untypical in terms of its water use or its water innovations at all. They have managed to cut their water use almost in half in the last 15 years. They used to use as much water as a city of 10,000 people, almost two million gallons of water a night.

They have pulled out a third of the turf in the golf course. It now has a very desert feel. You now tee off from a grassy green, and your ball heads for a hole that is a grassy green, but in between, dessert ravines and arroyos landscaped as desert landscape.

And that's all different than the desert used to be. Every single bush at Angel Park has its own individual sprinkler head, and so they don't spray water randomly. Each plant actually gets the water it needs. And the turf has its own sprinklers.

All the sprinklers are computer controlled and take into account things like temperature and wind. And finally, they only use re-use water. They are using treated sewage from a sewage plant just two miles away.

So unlike 20 years ago, when Patricia Mulroy first came to Las Vegas, golf courses and fountains and all of these water features used water straight from Lake Mead, which you never got back. And so part of her new ethic is every golf course in Las Vegas has a water budget, and they are not permitted to exceed the water budget or be fined. And so they've gone from using more than 600 million gallons of water a year down to about 376 million gallons of water a year.

GROSS: Which is still an extraordinary amount of water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHMAN: Still, that's right. Still, at this point, each hole of golf on a golf course in Las Vegas, each time a golfer steps to a tee in Las Vegas, it requires about 139 gallons of water just to get that golfer through that one hole. So golf in Las Vegas remains one of the great water indulgences of the town.

GROSS: My guest is Charles Fishman, author of the new book "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Fishman. You may know him as the author of the bestseller "The Wal-Mart Effect." He has a new book called "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water."

You know, I'm thinking, as I hear you talk about this, that the whole idea that we're on the verge of a second water revolution. When I think of the municipal water systems in our city, so many of them are old. The water infrastructure is old. And with all the budget cuts happening on every level of government, what are the odds that cities will have the money to create the kind of infrastructure for us to have smart water?

Mr. FISHMAN: The average U.S. home pays an average of $34 a month. So our always-on, unlimited, almost, you know, universally reliably safe water costs us about $1 a day. Our water bill is less than half what our cable TV bill or our cell phone bill is.

So yes, cities are, you might say, starved for financial resources, and water utilities are often in terrible shape. In Philadelphia, the...

GROSS: Where we both live.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHMAN: In Philadelphia, where we both live, there are 3,300 miles of water mains in the city, and they replace 20 miles a year. They're on 160-year replacement cycles. One of the officials from the Philadelphia water utility said to me: We definitely want to make sure we get the 20 miles right. That's not actually a question of money: It's a question of public resistance to digging up streets.

One of the big problems with water is that the success of the golden age of water has created an invisible system. We don't even take it for granted because taking it for granted would suggest we pay attention to it.

GROSS: That we even know it exists.

Mr. FISHMAN: Right, exactly. We - taking it for granted would require us to do more thinking that we do. But that hidden system, that invisible system, is, as you say, corroding, and as it corrodes, it even corrodes our support for public water.

We just think: Well, I'll just - why should I pay more for water? I'll just go buy bottled water. But, in fact, we don't actually spend that much supporting the system.

In the U.S., we spend $21 billion a year buying bottled water, and we spend $29 billion a year maintaining the entire water system: pipes, treatment plants, pumps. We spend almost as much on crushable plastic bottles of water as we do maintaining the water system.

So if we were to scale back our bottled water spending, say, 15 percent and divert that money - I mean, you obviously can't do that directly, but in fact the water system is starved for innovation and starved for resources, and we're going to have to find a way of making it okay to spend that money.

I think learning about what's remarkable about the water system - and also I think public utility officials really need to talk about what's required to make the system work. They've been very proud of being silent. Now they need to do a better job of explaining to us that if you want new water pipes, then it's okay to dig up the street in front of your house for a couple of weeks.

GROSS: Can you think of a city in the United States, like a new city or a new town, that got the plumbing right, that got the water system right, that is using a more smart, innovative system.

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, there's a small picture and a big picture. In Orlando, Florida, and the county around Orlando, Orange County, Florida, 25 years ago, they mandated a second plumbing system, a gray water system, which is called a purple pipe system because the pipes are literally purple so you don't confuse potable water with pretty clean water that's probably not safe to drink.

They mandated that system for - just for lawn watering and for watering athletic fields and parks and only in new construction. And in the last 25 years, the city of Orlando and the surrounding Orange County have more than doubled, and Orange County, Florida, now provides almost as much recycled waste water in the purple pipe system every day as it does potable water. They're almost equal.

So the city has grown by a factor of two without needing to increase the amount of water it uses at all and without having to take some of the dramatic steps that a place like Las Vegas has taken.

GROSS: Can you explain why it's helpful to have two sets of pipes, one for drinkable water and one for water that isn't drinkable, but you could use it for your lawn, you could use it to wash your car?

Mr. FISHMAN: Sure. It cuts the amount of potable water you use. What happens in Orange County, Florida, is the people use their water for cooking and washing the dishes, washing the clothes, flushing the toilet. It goes back to a waste-water treatment plant. It's cleaned almost enough to be drinkable, not quite, and then piped back to those same homes and to schools and athletic fields to water grass and turf.

GROSS: My guest, Charles Fishman, will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Charles Fishman, author of the new book "The Big Thirst." It's about the water crisis in the U.S. and around the world. He says we're facing scarcities in the U.S. because we use water unwisely. We're entering a new era of water, where three things we have taken for granted - water that is abundant, cheap and safe - will not be present together in the decades ahead. He says we may have water that is abundant and cheap, but that will be water for reuse, like watering lawns and flushing toilets. Fishman's book examines some innovative water systems.

You write about companies that are using water, corporations that are doing innovative things with their water usage. Choose a company that you think is innovating in a way that other companies can follow.

Mr. FISHMAN: IBM, which we think of as a computer company and a data processing company, still does make some computer chips, and they have kind of stumbled into real water innovation. The team at one of the IBM chip plants in the U.S. in Burlington, Vermont figured out that using water smartly could be a competitive advantage for IBM, that it could help keep computer chips cheap.

Computer chips require an incredible kind of water, a very exotic kind of water that exists nowhere in the universe except microchip plants and pharmaceutical plants. It's called ultra-pure water, and it is nothing but water. Microchips - the paths on microchips are so small, that when you need to wash the chip between the manufacturing steps, the water can't have anything in it.

GROSS: Like minerals or anything like that?

Mr. FISHMAN: Not only not minerals, not even the tiniest parts of cells or viruses. Ultra-pure water is 12 steps of filtration cleaner than reverse osmosis, which most of us think of as nothing left but the water. But that's very expensive water to make, ultra-pure water. They make two million gallons a day of this very high-priced water. And so they went looking for ways to reduce their water usage and recapture some of the qualities of the water that they were spending money on in one place and squandering in another place. The water comes in cold, but to make this very clean water, you need it warmed up.

In another place in the plant, they were cooling water for air conditioning purposes, for the fabrication parts of the chip factory, and they didn't connect the dots. They were warming water in one place and cooling it in another. They simply re-plumbed the big pipes, and the cold water goes to the air-conditioning first, gets warmed up, and comes back to the ultra-cleaning portion of the factory. In the course of doing this, they found themselves, for instance, dribbling this ultra-pure water constantly in machines that weren't - that didn't have any chips in them. So they were wasting very, very precious high-purity water.

They went and started examining all the ways they use water and whether they were using it smartly in each of those places. And the results are kind of amazing. Over 10 years, they reduced their water use by a third, while they increased their chip production by a third. So they increased their efficiency - the efficiency of their water productivity - by about 80 percent.

GROSS: Lessons for other places, other companies?

Mr. FISHMAN: The lessons are kind of amazing. The first lesson is they didn't save any money, particularly, on the water itself. For every dollar of water - the water comes in from the Municipal Water Utility in Burlington - they saved $4 on energy and chemicals and filtration. You don't have to treat what you don't use. And they found this virtuous cycle. Once you start looking for ways to save water, the cycle sort of builds on itself. You reduce your water use, then you can turn around and reduce the size of your pumps, which reduces your electricity bill.

GROSS: Now, you applaud business for its innovation and water usage and water cleaning. But at the same time, you're critical of some of the same businesses for polluting water while they come up with water innovation. So you do caution in your book that it's important not to let business get so far ahead that we cede the future of water to commercial interests. What are your concerns about that?

Mr. FISHMAN: That's exactly right. We need people thinking about new water technology and new ways of using water. I think the next 20 or 30 years are going to feel a little bit like the telecommunications revolution of the last 20 or 30 years. Anybody who's over 30 remembers a time when all your telephone did was ring. You know, there was no call waiting, no caller ID, let alone access to all of human knowledge on your phone.

I think we're going to see the same kind of blossoming across all kinds of water technology. And it's not going to come from water utilities in cities. It's going to come from companies. But you don't want to let companies end up in control of the resource itself. And so that's part of the point of trying to plunge in and understand water. We are, as a community, really water literate. We don't know what's required to acquire the water we use, to treat it, to deliver it, or to take it away from us, and that ignorance is kind of a gap that entrepreneurial companies can step into. And we need to be careful not to cede those rights.

GROSS: My guest is Charles Fishman, author of the new book "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Fishman. We're talking about his new book "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." He's also the author of the bestseller "The Wal-Mart Effect," which will be coming out in a new edition very soon.

You write about how we take water for granted as being drinkable, unlimited and having a pretty modest water bill. To prove to yourself how difficult it would be if we didn't have that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: went to India, where a lot of people live in places where water - they don't have indoor plumbing. Water isn't coming out in a drinkable way in their homes. It's delivered by tanker to their neighborhood, or - and they had to go get it. So you actually outfitted yourself with a huge jug. Is that the right word?

Mr. FISHMAN: Better, water jar.

GROSS: So tell us about your experience having to actually get water and bring it back to where you were staying.

Mr. FISHMAN: I went to the village of Jagadhri(ph), it is only about 50 miles from Delhi. So it's not, you know, in a remote part of India. And this was one of the things I really wanted to do. When you hear about water, you always hear the figure that a billion people in the world -one out of six people doesn't have clean, safe water. Many people have to walk to get their water. There's typically a picture of a woman or girl carrying water on her head, yet I'd never read an account of what it actually like to walk with water. It turns out hundreds of millions of people in the world have to walk to get their water every day.

So I went to the village of Jagadhri, and I did the water walk with these women, three kilometers out and three kilometers back. Going out, of course, you're only carrying an empty jug. Only the women and girls in India carry water, and that's quite common around the world. It's just a cultural practice. And in Jagadhri, it's a pretty modest burden. They do the water walk twice a day.

I walked with a 12-year-old girl named Anjana(ph). I carried two-and-a-half gallons of water. I carried about 20 pounds of water on my head. Anjana, age 12, carried twice that amount. She carried five gallons, 40 pounds of water. I spilled half the water that I carried on the way home. I was not that good at this right from the start, and I was carrying two-and-a-half galloons of water. We use three gallons of water, typically, just to flush a toilet. And so this is a very clumsy and inefficient and taxing way to bring your drinking water home.

One of the most interesting things about the water walk: People who walk to get water in developing world nations often don't have jobs, and they can't go to school because they must go get the water twice a day. During my walk in Jagadhri, I had cell phone service the entire time out to the well and back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny. Right.

Mr. FISHMAN: And so the economy in India, in this state in India, has contrived to offer people the highest technology available to us in routine use: cell phone service. They could actually call somebody in the Ministry of the Environment in India and talk about why they don't have access to water while they were walking out to get their water and bring it back each day. So that's sort of a terrible irony.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that we're dealing with in terms of water is new pollutants, micro pollutants. And that includes, as you point out in your book, pharmaceutical drugs that people take. In other words, like, if you're taking an antidepressant or a blood pressure medication on a daily basis, some of that ends up in your urine, which ends up in the sewage, which is then retreated. Do I have that right?

Mr. FISHMAN: Yes. It actually ends up in the wastewater treatment plant. But, in fact, the problem is that modern U.S. wastewater treatment plants aren't quite modern enough, and they don't have the ability to take out this new class of micro-pollutants. It's pharmaceuticals, Prozac and birth control pills and, you know, cholesterol-lowering medicine. It's also chemicals and things like shampoos and conditioners that - all of which are kind of new. Fifty years ago, none of that stuff existed.

GROSS: And we're not even talking about the byproducts of various manufacturing processes that have, like, poisons that end up in the water.

Mr. FISHMAN: No. No. Were not talking about things like what might happen with natural gas fracking and using water to get natural gas out of the ground. This is just what's in the water that comes, really, from our homes. I think there are two important things to understand about this. The first is the quantities of this material are almost unimaginably small - one part per trillion. So if you have $10 million, that's a lifetime of earnings for someone who earns $100,000 a year. One part per billion is a penny. Reach into your pocket and find a penny. This is a thousand times less concentrated than that.

And so the amounts are infinitesimal, and yet these are very potent chemicals. And we don't know what the impact on human health is. As they accumulate in bodies of water, though, they are having an impact on fish and aquatic reptiles. Of course, they're living in the water, and so we don't live in our drinking water, which is important. We're not swimming in it every day. But even the environmental impact is really disturbing. It turns out that we have the ability - that we can hardly understand the vast water system that surrounds us on Earth, but we certainly have the ability to taint it, to impact it.

And so I think part the second water revolution is going to be finding ways of getting those chemicals out of the water really even before they get back into the environment. Just like we did at 100 years ago when the dawn of a kind of new science of bacteriology allowed us to clean up our drinking water supplies, there are people working on this question, not just of what's the impact of a tiny bit of Tylenol in your drinking water, but how do we take it out in an affordable way.

The technology we have today would require us to double the price of drinking water at home, which would be completely unacceptable politically. But there are people working on finding ways to get it out of the wastewater stream so it doesn't end up back in the environment.

GROSS: So if we're talking about a second water revolution, one of the things you'd like to see us address is water usage fees, water fees. They're pretty low now, although people still complain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What kind of debate would you like to see happening in the United States about water bills?

Mr. FISHMAN: One of the places I went in the course of reporting the book was the largest soup factory in the world in Napoleon, Ohio. They use more water than the city of Napoleon uses. They simply put their water intakes in the Maumee River, which runs right in front of the plant, and take as much water as they need for free. That's completely typical. The water bill at the IBM microchip plant in Burlington, Vermont, the actual water bill itself is not that significant. It's the bill to do all the things you need to do to water.

I think that if you could fix one thing about water that would fix everything else, it is price. When water is free, we don't take care of the environment that the water comes from. It doesn't pay to use water more smartly. If you install a million dollars worth of technology in your factory and save $100,000 worth of water, that doesn't make any sense.

So I'd like to see a conversation about making sure that we provide the basic ration of water to everybody. And I shouldn't even use the word ration - the basic amount of water that people need to get through the day in the U.S. and everywhere, and that above that, we start to charge an amount for the water that makes sense in terms of what's required all the way back to sort of protect the environment from which the water comes and to make sure that that water supply is constantly sustainable.

The result will be: Water will be used more smartly. The bills for everything won't necessarily go up. Your iPhone does require water, this ultra-pure water to make. But once you start pricing things smartly, people use it much more smartly.

GROSS: Your investigation into water and how we use it started with an article that you wrote about bottled water a few years ago, and that expanded into your new book "The Big Thirst," which looks at how we use water as a nation, how other countries use water. How have your water habits changed over the past few years as you've been investigating water?

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, we use a lot less bottled water in our house than we used to, as an example. We're always promoting taking the refillable water bottle to the soccer game or the dance lessons. There are still water bottles kicking around the minivan and kicking around the house.

I think one of the smallest but most significant changes in my own habits are I almost never pour water down the drain now. When somebody leaves a half-empty glass of water around the house or a half empty bottle of water in the minivan, there's nothing that no one wants ownership of less than a half empty bottle of water. You can't get anybody to drink that. I pour them right in the dog bowl, or I pour them in a plant in the house. It just seems silly to pour that perfectly good water down the drain.

We actually discovered - in the course of doing this book, we discovered that the water pressure to our house was way too high. We had the best showers in America. You turn on the water, and it came jetting out. Well, it turned out that the water pressure was 50 percent higher than was legally allowed in our municipality, just because we were near some pumping station. And so we actually got a step-down valve installed in our house, and, in fact, it cut our water use 20 or 30 percent. Just because when you turn on the water to wash the dishes, we used to have this incredible jet of water coming out, most of which we didn't need.

I'm very careful about how much water I use when I'm rinsing or washing or something like that, when the volume doesn't matter, but it's easy to use too much. And, of course, we're careful about how we water our lawn and things like that. For me, it's a question of water consciousness. In the U.S., half the water in the U.S. is used by power plants. A huge chunk of water is used by farmers. And so our own water habits are important, and the cost of municipal water is quite high compared to the, you know, power plants, and farmers use water of much less purity.

But for me, the most important thing is that I sort of pay attention to the water, and I actually appreciate the water. The journey has been kind of amazing. The saliva in your mouth comes from the Milky Way. All the water on Earth...

GROSS: I'm sorry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You want to explain that?

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, saliva is 99.5 percent water.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FISHMAN: And all the water on Earth was actually formed in space, in interstellar gas clouds. And it was delivered here when the Earth was formed, or shortly thereafter, in exactly the form it's in.

So all the water on Earth - the water in your Evian bottle, the water in your glass of water, the water you use to boil a pot of spaghetti - all that water is 4.3 or 4.4 billion years old. No water's being created on Earth. No water's being destroyed on Earth. And what that means is the whole debate about reusing wastewater is kind of silly, because all the water we've got right now has been used over and over again. Every drink of water you take, every pot of coffee you make is dinosaur pee, because it's all been through the kidneys of a Tyrannosaurus Rex or an Apatosaurus many, many times, because all the water we have is all the water we have ever had.

And to me, that's actually good news. Water is incredibly resilient. It's unlike fuel or other natural resources. It can be used over and over and over again, and it emerges - except for needing to be cleaned, ready to use again - exactly as water.

If you use a gallon of diesel fuel, you can't reuse it as diesel fuel ever again. If you use a gallon of water to water the rice that your tractor is planting, the water emerges from the rice-growing process ready to use again as water. That's sort of part of the magic of water, is it's cosmic juice that came from interstellar space, which is wonderful to sort of pause and appreciate. And it's the most resilient thing we've got in daily use that is in high demand.

GROSS: Well, Charles Fishman, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FISHMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Charles Fishman is the author of "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water." He's also the author of "The Wal-Mart Effect." You can read an excerpt of "The Big Thirst," on our website:

This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.