A non-partisan, neutral perspective supporting diversity in the color of water

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Water

Disclosure: I had to purchase the book, and it was worth the $15 paid for it.

Water is written by Jennifer Wilson, a self-described "attractive-in-that-older-cousin-sort-of-way"..."former detassler of corn"...and winner of "best hair" while in high school. The book is published by Raygun, described as "the greatest store in the universe". A quick visit of Raygun's website indicates a champion of funny T-shirts, "bibs, glassware, koozies, keychains, shirts (duh), notebooks, cardigans, bags, postcards, magnets, buttons, stickers, and more" some promoting the great state of Iowa and clean water. With such a diversity of products and missions, it makes one wonder why did they get into publishing? Their answer...."well, we already make some questionable business decisions, so what's one more!"

The story behind "Water" focuses on the real time debate about farm nitrates and drinking water. The novel fictionalizes a recent federal case filed by the Des Moines Water Works alleging that drainage of farmland accelerates nitrate pollution, which costs the municipal water supply almost a million dollars a year to treat. The situation has garnered much recent press as Iowa's Nasty Water War.

Water is covered by many different styles of reporting. Knowledge Entrepreneurs such as Aquadoc of WaterWired and David Zetland of Aguanomics have long established their credentials in scholarly peer-reviewed published literature and books and share their expertise through social media or as regular experts sought out by the "mainstream" media.

Knowledge Journalists with strong street credentials in journalism and a focused interest in the hydrologic sciences are few and far between, most notably Brett Walton of Circle of Blue and more locally in Oregon, Kelly House in The Oregonian. The excellent books by Cynthia Barnett fall into this category.

Then there are those writers who could be classified as Knowledge Novelists. These are stories and novels composed by writers with credentials in the hydrologic sciences tempered by backgrounds in journalism. Perhaps the best example I have encountered is The Hidden Sea: Ground Water, Springs, and Wells by Francis Chapelle who weaves the dull and boring water science with water mythology into a well crafted story with excellent illustrations so folks who like water, but don't have time to take classes in water, discover what water scientists debate and do with their time. I always admired Frank Chapelle's textbooks on groundwater microbiology and geochemistry, bottled water, and hydrogeology and asked where he developed his "style" of writing at a professional conference. He indicated his career started in journalism before becoming a world-class scientist with the US Geological Survey.

Then there are stories and novels composed by authors and journalists with credentials in creative writing and interests in the hydrologic sciences. Water by Jennifer Wilson is a wonderful addition to the Knowledge Novelist genre through fiction. While the book fictionalizes a real pollution problem spanning from Iowa to the Gulf Coast, the story covers the knotty problems of a newspaper reporter covering a plethora of real world challenges including downsizing the newsmedia because of technology, professional displacement associated with middle age, while at the same time covering stories and topics ranging from water as a human right, common pool resources, hydrogeology, water rights, fate and transport of nitrate, blue-baby syndrome, the Gulf Coast "deadzone", corruption, and, of all things, collective activism. An interesting twist in the story is a water professional decides to run for political office on the platform of clean water to "make a difference" in the world. Quite alot of topics to cover in 226 pages, but let's not forget the importance of linking all of these important ideals to love, lust, and lost ideals so important to making the novel salable to the general public. It's all there and all written with aplomb.

Like Chapelle's The Hidden Sea, Wilson's Water is expertly illustrated. The diagrams themselves could easily serve as Powerpoint illustrations for any college class on the "nitrogen cascade" and the geography of the lock system on the Upper Mississippi River.

University of Virginia environmental sciences professor James Galloway coined the concept of "nitrogen cascades" and stated "The public does not yet know much about nitrogen, but in many ways it is as big an issue as carbon, and due to the interactions of nitrogen and carbon, makes the challenge of providing food and energy to the world's peoples without harming the global environment a tremendous challenge."  

How do the sciences get the word out about the complex nitrogen "nexus" without falling into the "gloom and doom" portrayals of climate change and water in "Cli-Fi" novels like The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi? 

We can start by integrating "Hy-Fi" novels like Water into academic curricula. A fun novel with fundamental messages on fertilizer, farms, food, and fidelity.

* * * 
Mostly I'm surprised at how water seems like such a faraway issue, though we're right on the banks of this huge artery of a river, and everybody's got a capillary in their backyard, some creek or stream right down the road. Water is everywhere. But it sure doesn't seem like much of a problem at all, unless you've got a microscope with you, or a test kit.
~Water, page 142


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