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Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It

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In the middle of the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas casinos use billions of gallons of water for fountains, pirate lagoons, wave machines, and indoor canals. Meanwhile, the town of Orme, Tennessee, must truck in water from Alabama because it has literally run out.
Robert Glennon captures the irony—and tragedy—of America’s water crisis in a book that is both frightening and wickedly comical. From manufactured snow for tourists in Atlanta to trillions of gallons of water flushed down the toilet each year, Unquenchable reveals the heady extravagances and everyday inefficiencies that are sucking the nation dry.
The looming catastrophe remains hidden as government diverts supplies from one area to another to keep water flowing from the tap. But sooner rather than later, the shell game has to end. And when it does, shortages will threaten not only the environment, but every aspect of American we face shuttered power plants and jobless workers, decimated fi sheries and contaminated drinking water.
We can’t engineer our way out of the problem, either with traditional fixes or zany schemes to tow icebergs from Alaska. In fact, new demands for water, particularly the enormous supply needed for ethanol and energy production, will only worsen the crisis. America must make hard choices—and Glennon’s answers are fittingly provocative. He proposes market-based solutions that value water as both a commodity and a fundamental human right.
One truth runs throughout Unquenchable : only when we recognize water’s worth will we begin to conserve it.

414 pages, Hardcover

First published March 30, 2009

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5 stars
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156 (43%)
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94 (26%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 58 reviews
Profile Image for Sarah.
284 reviews6 followers
July 2, 2013
This is one of those books that makes you feel depressed, overwhelmed, angry, disgusted, etc., but hopefully by the end, optimistic. It's in the same category for me as Omnivore's Dilemma and Half the Sky: explore a giant problem, then offer solutions that are possible but definitely not easy. I want to cite so many facts and statistics from the book, but that could go on for pages and pages. But here's the bottom line: If we don't have enough water, nothing else matters. Not buying local produce or eating organic or ending sex slavery or improving maternal health. Nothing works without water. And yet we give it so little value; we spend more per month on cell phones than we do on water. That is messed up. Please read this book, and then commit to doing more for water conservation than turning off the tap when you brush your teeth.
Profile Image for Christina Dudley.
Author 16 books137 followers
January 11, 2013
What an amazing book! I learned so much from this read about such a wide range of water-related topics: where Americans in different regions get their water; the connection (cycle, really) between energy and water; why dams and diversions and endless well-drilling have finally caught up to us; the catch-22 of bottled water versus what's still in our city drinking water; conservation tips and larger-scale hope on the horizon for making the best of the water we have.

Who knew that our beloved internet requires ginormo, water-cooled "server farms"? All my Goodreads reviews and blog posts and emails and shared pictures sit out there on some server, sucking down electricity and gazillion ccfs of water. If I really wanted to be environmentally correct, I should curtail my cyber life!

Reading UNQUENCHABLE opened my eyes to the complex job politicians and citizens will have sorting out the growing issues around water, who gets it, what it costs, and why. Glennon does a thorough job covering the historical and geological reasons that things are the way they are, as well as alerting us to the crisis ahead if things don't get dealt with. I came away grateful that my city separates its storm and wastewater systems, that my state has plenty of water and rainfall for now, and that I don't live downstream from other large cities whose meds and antibiotics can't be purified out of the drinking water. I also came away wanting to take shorter showers, to capture perfectly good water running down the drain, and to replace my old washer with a more water- and energy-efficient model.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Rob Best.
23 reviews1 follower
September 30, 2014
"Unquenchable" is an in-depth look at all the ways we use and waste water in the US. For someone familiar with the water space, it seems to be a refresher, geared more to be an eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the water system in the US and less toward a comprehensive discussion of water politics and solutions to the crisis. While the book has numerous excellent case studies of localized water impacts, it jumps around a lot as well, making it harder to understand what comprehensive reform is required.

Robert Glennon does a great job in making many issues around water understandable. He goes through a number of concerns about water, exploring both how we use the resource, why it is a challenging problem to solve, and starts to outline some ways of fixing the problems we have created. However where Glennon doesn't go far enough is in proposing these solutions. He stops short of proposing comprehensive reform for any of the case studies or for national water policy. This makes it hard to see the links between some of the issues and solutions. However, this book is still a great introduction to the issues around American water.
Profile Image for Dan Sharber.
226 reviews75 followers
July 19, 2011
this was actually a really good book. a lot of great info on water rights and how they are managed or mismanaged in various places. also a lot about what can be done to conserve water. some conclusions i did not agree with but this was not simply a list of individual changes to conserve water. the author also took on energy creation as well as gold courses and agriculture which all over use water. well written and engaging overview of water issues.
Profile Image for Derek Emerson.
383 reviews21 followers
August 23, 2009
There are no shortage of crisis situations facing our world, yet nothing seems so elemental as water. It is such an integral part of our daily existence that it can be hard to understand how deep our dependence on water really is. That we need to drink water is understandable, but that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef will make you look at that quarter pounder a bit differently.

Of course, concern about water is as ancient as life itself. In the United States water disputes have influenced settlements and governance, as any good Western movie will show you. More recently we've dealt with acid rain, but with the plethora of water bottles showing up on store shelves, do we really have a water crisis?

Robert Glennon's well laid out argument first establishes that there is a crisis and then offers suggestions on how to address it. The argument that there is a water crisis is becoming easier to make, in no small part thanks to Glennon's ongoing work in this area. Major media outlets are also now pointing out that the concern for water is not just an issue for other parts of the world, but the United States as well.

Glennon's strengths in this book are many. First, he lays out the arguments by telling stories and backing them up with facts. We not only see numbers, but more importantly we see the people impacted by the numbers. Glennon understands that this is not simply an environmental issue, but a human issue. Plus, he is not interested in browbeating naysayers into submission; he clearly wants to attract people to his way of thinking. While he does not suffer fools kindly, he assumes the reader is an intelligent person with an interest in understanding the issue at hand.

Second, Glennon is well organized in his presentation, something many people passionate about a subject forget to consider. He breaks the book into three sections ("The Crisis," "Real and Surreal Solutions," and "A New Approach") and he keeps them separate. When presenting the information he lets the data speak for itself, sometimes showing his hand toward the end, at other times leaving the reader to their own conclusions.

Third, Glennon knows that rational people can disagree. He refuses to demonize those he may disagree with, instead looking at their arguments and refuting as he sees fit. Several times throughout the book he acknowledges that there is no easy solution to a problem and that two opposing views both carry valid arguments. In other words, this is a scientist who understands in reality we do not have all the answers. He also does not expect everyone to adopt an extreme point of view and shows himself as a passionate, if not radical, water enthusiast. Toward the end of the book he notes his mother-in-law takes "navy showers" (get wet, turn the water off and soap up, and turn the water back on to rinse) -- he prefers the more wasteful but also more pleasant full shower treatment.

Finally, one of Glennon's surprising strengths is his sense of humor. While he never loses sight of the seriousness of his topic, he can rarely resist a good laugh; as a reader it is surprising to find yourself laughing at a "heavy" book. When discussing the race for a more powerful show head (with costs hitting $6,000) he cannot resist noting that Kohler, although their ad features a product with seven heads of water, "none...get the female catalog model's hair wet" (40).

His ideas for solving the water crisis are intentionally wide ranging. Sure, he wants you to turn of the water when brushing your teeth, but he also wants to talk about pricing models, buying water rights, using government incentives, and stimulating alternative waste technologies, just to mention a few. In other words, we cannot solve the water crisis by simply taking shorter showers, but it is a start. Glennon offers input to Congress and local and state governments, and offers a website for the reader to get water-saving tips (http://www.watercasa.org/genwatersavi...)

As his subtitle implies, this is a book about the water crisis in the U.S., not the world. To see him apply this thinking to worldwide issues in water would be equally helpful, but this book is simply not that place. Instead, we get a well reasoned presentation of an issue with clear and reasonable ideas on how to address the problems, all with a well written and humorous style, which make this a must read.
Profile Image for Chris.
151 reviews2 followers
January 7, 2011
I give it four glasses (of water) up. An entertaining, thought-provooking, non-technical look at how we waste water, and why moving to the Southwest might not be such a great idea.
Profile Image for Michael.
185 reviews
July 25, 2021
A well written, very well researched, and well organized book - but not as a good as Glennon's lean and mean Water Follies, which sets out the legal basis for water rights in the United States and its impact on unsustainable water use in the US Southwest. Unquenchable instead looks at the overall picture of water consumption in the US as a whole and offers ways to resolve America's untenable use of its finite and clearly dwindling water resources. Call it the water side of the equation to Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, which Glennon refers to several times, and which I compare Glennon's work to favourably. Despite dealing with a difficult subject, Glennon's approach is focused and optimistic, seeing opportunities instead of unresolvable, wicked, problems. He also works very closely with the economic costs of water use, which is excellent, in large part because he suggests that the way to avoid depleting this common good is through market pricing. Though through a highly regulated market and specifically tailored process to each waterway and community that benefits all parties, as opposed to the death knell of privatizing water and allowing the invisible hand to resolve the issues. As he says, "Adam Smith's fallacy, to [economist Duncan K.] Foley, is that selfishness in the service of capitalist market relations helps our fellow human beings. This convenient rationalization allows us to ignore the harsh consequences of a cruel market, ranging from large-scale unemployment to environmental degradation to the destruction of cultures and communities." (pages 309-310) A very good book on the whole, but which should be read in conjunction with his Water Follies if you are to fully appreciate the nuances of how the United States' legal regime undermines water conservation and responsible use.
Profile Image for Natali.
455 reviews287 followers
June 9, 2022
This is a really important book. It increased my climate anxiety but ultimately the author is an optimist for how the world can learn to share and optimise water usage. SO many takeaways from this! Namely,
- The U.S. does not calculate how much water is available for new projects. We're winging it and drawing from water supplies and depleting ground water. We put pools in deserts and water parks wherever TF we feel like it. There is no regulation for residential wells. We're winging it and this won't end well!
- Water pollution is real and it's bad.
- Water filtration systems are incredibly wasteful.
- Garbage disposal systems are incredibly wasteful.
- The fight for water IS happening in courts and it will get dirtier at this rate.
- Americans do not pay for water so they continue to waste like drunken sailors. They pay for the DELIVERY of water.
- There are solutions if we steel ourselves up enough to bring them about, namely, paying more for water, taxing water, and asking our government to retire and limit water rights.

My father gave me this book a few years ago and I'm super glad that he did. Read this! It's important, no matter where you live!
222 reviews
November 12, 2017
Solid book, Glennon does a very good job of giving an overview and considering many different solutions. Sometimes painted a simpler picture than exists by giving one or two examples, and relied a bit too heavily on examples, but his general analysis is certainly correct. Not super exciting, but definitely a very important issue, and this book is a solid overview of why water scarcity is a problem and the best ways to fix it.
March 10, 2019
Well written book on an immensely important issue. I would only say that, with the data and facts expanding exponentially each day, that one would need further research to fully understand the problems we're facing. A lot has changed in a decade. Also think the book fails to mention a few key components to water production and consumption--particularly with respect to clothing and other goods that we often overlook the cost of. But overall an excellent piece.
Profile Image for Katie.
627 reviews3 followers
June 24, 2019
Even though this book is 10 years old, many of the same water issues are (sadly) still occurring...with new issues still popping up. As a person who studied water policy and water issues, this book is written in a way that makes it accessible to the public and is easy to understand. However, the author politicized a few things that took away his credibility at points. But overall, a pretty good book.
Profile Image for NELS.
53 reviews1 follower
June 14, 2023
Horrible! Another climate change propagandist pointing fingers at population growth and CO2 as the problem with everything. I can’t say enough about this book to tell you how bad it is. The authority of his argument is that of authority. He name drops supposedly overwhelming agreement with his position by reference to “leading authorities”. What a croc!
Profile Image for Martini Man.
26 reviews
July 13, 2017
Excellent book written in accessible language about the American water crisis and what can and should be done about it. I found the balance between community needs and individual rights well done with sensitivity. The book is a little old now, but the solutions are still current.
Profile Image for Christian Hartman.
393 reviews24 followers
January 23, 2019
Fascinating book, it will make you upset about how water has been used (and continues to be used) in this country, as well as open your eyes to the true value of this seemingly limitless resource!
Profile Image for Kathryn López.
5 reviews1 follower
December 25, 2021
Very informative review of water practices in the US. Slightly outdated but at the same time, not much has changed since it was written. Would encourage more people to read it or similar works.
Profile Image for Jenn.
1,050 reviews3 followers
July 28, 2022
Definitely an eye opening read.

But this was a tough book to get through. Long winded sentences, huge paragraphs. Book read like a text book and it took me a bit to get through it.
Profile Image for Allen.
32 reviews
July 29, 2023

Author says capitalism exploits water, doing irreversible harm to ecosystems :)

Author says solution is "better" capitalism :( and that other solutions are unlikely

In short, the future is bleak.
Profile Image for Weavre.
420 reviews7 followers
August 10, 2009
While Glennon's writing style isn't quite as vivid as Workman's (Heart of Dryness, the topic itself remains compelling. For anyone who thinks, "I don't need to worry about that where I live," I'd encourage a bit more reading on the current realities, which have changed considerably even in very recent years.

Even so, Glennon may not be the place to start, as the academic, figure-laden writing style may not grip some readers in the same way as other books on the subject. To Glennon's credit, he includes numerous examples in an effort to personalize the water crisis ... he just doesn't quite succeed in that regard. On the other hand, it's hard to argue with his well-researched, carefully noted facts, too.

PS--the page count on Goodreads is inaccurate. This book actually has 333 pages of text, or 415 counting acknowledgments, extensive notes, index, etc. Do any of my library friends have librarian access to update this book on Goodreads?

23 reviews3 followers
January 7, 2015
a fantastic way to understand the problem with suggestions for how we can each act

I read the Audible version of this book supplemented by the Kindle version where I put highlights and notes. found this book after viewing the equally thought provoking documentary "Last Call at the Oasis". The water crisis as described by Robert Glennon is complex. The book does a good job of describing it and highlighting that in most cases, it isn't caused by a single problem but rather is a result of the interconnection of multiple causes (in other words, it looks at the entire system and how it is failing). The solutions are equally thorny and again Robert provides a good overview of the pros and cons of various solutions to give a very balanced understanding of the issues. It closes with a list of individual action items that we can each consider and (at least partially) act on so that we can help to start addressing the problem.
Profile Image for Luia.
10 reviews4 followers
May 13, 2013
Nutshell: not exactly a page-turner, but full of interesting and important information on water waste and the little things we can do to eventually make a big difference.
The author occasionally gets a little long winded and the logical flow of the book is a little choppy, but I'm ultimately very glad to have read the book. Whether or not you agree with Glennon's favored solution, the book is an honest and ugly picture of the water situation in America. America has always professed to be a land of plenty, and reading this helped change the way I use and appreciate resources like water and electricity. For people like myself who occasionally get overwhelmed by the magnitude of social and environmental problems, it's nice to have a book encourage individual actions and small steps.
Profile Image for Camille Tesch.
277 reviews7 followers
June 20, 2014
I read about half of this one, but got sucked into other things, so it went back to the library. I'd like to come back to it sometime. I've been interested in water politics and policy ever since it really dawned on me that I grew up in the desert, but water was cheap and everyone had beautiful lush green lawns through the summer while the mountains turn brown.

Reading this made me glad to live where I do. I also thought a lot about Jared Dimond's book 'Collapse', and wondered if many communities are getting themselves into a situation where they'll simply run out of water before making very difficult political decisions. Reading it also made me want to install rain barrels, install an advanced filtration system, and splash in the rain. I'll have to get back to it, and read about the solutions he offers to the water crisis.
Profile Image for Lynne.
463 reviews
July 5, 2011
I think that everyone should read this book. I knew that water problems are going to become incredibly serious in coming years. I knew that ethanol production here in the midwest where we have abundant water has drawn down the water table in some locations and left private wells dry. I also knew how critical water supplies are in the southwest. This book is well written, very readable, and almost shockingly informative. People are rather blase about how they use water in the U.S. and they don't think about its finite quality. There is no substitute. The author has some good details on ways to deal with the crisis, but they are not easy or inexpensive. First, people need to realize the depth of the problem and then they must be dedicated to conserving this vital resource.
Profile Image for Yune.
631 reviews21 followers
December 28, 2009
Readable and informative. I'd heard about how Southern California got most of its water from Northern California, but I hadn't really thought through the bickering that could occur between upstream and downstream states where major rivers were concerned, or even how ridiculous it is to have a major metropolis in the middle of the desert, and insist on immaculate lawns. The fact that there are water rights lawyers!

Makes you appreciate water and how stupidly cheap and easy to get it is for many Americans, and how this must change -- how some people are trying, and how they may be succeeding, not well enough, but too well for the ordinary person to realize how much trouble we're in.
Profile Image for Mike.
249 reviews8 followers
October 29, 2010
Having lived in Arizona for sixteen years and being familiar with the importance of water conservation, I should like this book. I want to like this book. But in spite of all my desire I disliked reading it. It reads like an MTV produced book jumping from trivia to trivia without forming a cohesive argument in any chapter - although the author attempts to do so. And I recognize at least one factual error in one of his accounts. Something should be said about his insistence on progressive liberal solutions to water scarcity issues but I'm too apolitical and, at least currently while residing in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, too waterlogged to care.
Profile Image for John.
77 reviews3 followers
July 25, 2009
A good update on our current water situation and is more easily readable than "Cadillac Dessert". Certainly written for the masses.

Glennon lays out many different ways we can solve our water problems, which will only continue to get worse with time, ranging from brilliant to crazy, and feasible to outlandish and expensive. Through this shotgun approach, states, cities and individuals can find solutions they can implement to help solve our water crisis.
Profile Image for Jessica.
201 reviews7 followers
October 27, 2009
I didn't really learn anything new from this book. In fact, I thought it was too similar to the last book of his I read, "Water Follies." His writing style sucks. Plus, there are a few places that he contradicts himself. Boy would I love to be his editor! But it was still interesting, and he makes a compelling argument for composting toilets. I just feel that only about a third of the book gave me anything new.
Profile Image for Matt Lundy.
17 reviews
March 29, 2011
In all fairness, I didn't read every page. The book had some interesting anecdotes from the past 15 years that don't show up in Marc Reisner's must read Cadillac Desert, but a lot of it was just laundry lists of ways that we currently waste water, and how to save more. Definetly check out Cadillac Desert first, and read every page!
Profile Image for John Lyman.
486 reviews4 followers
June 8, 2011
Another excellent book on the environment and the way humans are tearing through it with no abandon. It is amazing how many ways we use water, many completely "hidden" and unnoticed. What is clear is that demand far outpaces supply and, evidently, as happens so often these days, very few are willing to confront the issue until it is so grave that some kind of adjustment MUST be made.
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