Free toilets, selling water, thinking differently – a conversation with Charles Fishman

Charles FishmanCharles Fishman thinks Minnesota should sell its water. No, not the way that you might be thinking, in a pipeline from Lake Superior to someplace in the desert like Las Vegas. But as an asset, to water-intensive industries like microchip makers, and on one big condition – that they give the water back in the same condition they take it.

“Why the hell does Intel build microchip factories in Phoenix, where there is no water, when those factories gulp water like they were industrial scale farms,” Fishman said the other day. “Why aren’t they building the microchip factories in Minnesota? Why don’t you sell the availability of water as an asset, especially to people who have water-dependent businesses? And the caveat is, ‘You have to appreciate that part of our water culture is there’s lots of water and you have to give it back to the environment in the condition you took it in.’ ”

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Since he wrote the book “The Big Thirst” three years ago, journalist Fishman has been something of an evangelist for urging people to think differently about water – to become more conscious of the systems that deliver it and take it away, to use and re-use it in ways that provide unexpected benefits and to plan far better for times of scarcity.

“The Big Thirst” ranges from Las Vegas to Atlanta, from Australia to India and from homes to golf courses to hotels to factories to explore something most of us take totally without regard. Ways that cities, businesses and others are learning to clean and re-use water is an especially prominent theme.

So, as MPR News’ Ground Level project tries to shine light on the growing awareness that Minnesota has some water sustainability decisions to make, I thought Fishman would be a good person to chat with.

Fishman, who lives in the Philadelphia area, said Minnesota’s relative abundance of water actually puts it at a disadvantage in one way. Where water is scarce, at least some people have tumbled to the need to respond imaginatively. That’s a harder case to make in the Land of 10,000 Lakes but just as important.

We talked about everything from rabbits eating lawn sprinklers in Las Vegas to free toilets in San Antonio to the chemical spill that disrupted water drinking in West Virginia, from backup water sources to who’s responsible for not depleting a groundwater aquifer.

Here’s an edited transcript:

(“The Big Thirst,” Fishman said, may be getting an update in the coming year or so.)

Q: If you were writing the book today, what would be grabbing your attention now?

A: In the book I paid a lot of attention to Australia because I wanted a place that people could relate to and not dismiss out of hand that really had a series of serious of water problems. And those problems in my mind really remade the politics and the economics of a lot of Australia. You could do that now, unfortunately, in Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California.

What you see in California now is what happens when you don’t get ready for scarcity, when you assume that the amount of water you’ve got is the amount of water you’re going to have. So there’s no good system for sorting out whether the rice farmers or the almond tree growers or the cities or the people with lawns are going to get water. And the flip side’s also true. There’s no good way of sorting out who gives up their water, who has to sacrifice. And the time to make those decisions is not in the crisis because in the crisis everybody’s just screaming at each other.

I don’t really think they’re getting the right level of leadership out there. Even Jerry Brown is not saying, “The existing water regime is not sustainable. Let’s make sure that when the next dry period like this comes along in 2030 that the whole way we’re organized is different and that we all understand what’s going to happen and that we’ve changed how farmers use water and also how cities use water.”


If there was a crisis, they don’t even have alternative sources. Water independence in part means asking are we doing as much with the water we’ve got as we can and do we have a portfolio of sources?

In a place as simple as Charleston, West Virginia, there was literally only one source for the drinking water in that town. There wasn’t even an intake in a different part of the river, which hardly even counts as a different source of water. When you think about it, a piece of construction equipment can destroy your intake pipe in 15 minutes by accident, right? But if Charleston, West Virginia,  had a re-use system they would have at least been able to say, OK we’ve cut off the intake from the river. You’re only going to get water six hours a day but here’s the six hours and here’s the water and it’s going to be good clean water so you don’t have to worry. And most communities aren’t used to thinking like that, especially places like Charleston, or Minneapolis-St. Paul where the water’s just flowing through much faster than you can use.

Multiple sources does a couple of things. It gives you a little bit of an insurance policy and it also teaches you that you don’t need to just use water once and pitch it out. That’s a valuable way of thinking under any circumstance.


Q: A larger point of book was the value of forging a different relationship with water. Any evidence that’s happening?


A: I think there are a lot of places where it is happening. Those places stand out both for their imagination and simply for doing it.

If I’d known about San Antonio before I wrote the book, they would have been in the book. San Antonio relies on an aquifer for almost all their water. It’s very sensitive to the amount of rainfall, so it goes up and down. Twelve  or 14 years ago they asked voters to impose a sales tax on themselves to buy land or to buy the conservation rights to land to recharge the aquifer. The people at the water authority thought, “There’s going to be suburbs from here to El Paso. And those suburbs destory the ability for the aquifer to recharge. The very growth is going to destroy the ability of the community to provide its own water. Let’s buy the land we need to protect the water.” The sales tax is one penny on $8.   The voters are the ones who imposed it.


Q:  So somebody convinced voters to have, as you would put it, a different relationship with their water.

A: They have a water treatment plant called  Dos Rios that they call a water recycling plant and it is the most sustainable wastewater system that I’ve ever seen. Everything that goes into that wastewater treatment plant is re-used. The solid material in the wastewater is turned into compost and sold commercially. There’s a closed-loop purple-pipe system so a bunch of the water is cleaned and sent back out  to Microsoft and Frito Lay and Toyota for use in factories in San Antonio and then a bunch of the water  goes to as power plant. Most water treatment plants flare natural gas 24 hours a day. These guys in San Antonio had been flaring gas every day for 24 years. Somebody who is involved said, “This is Texas, man, there’s got to be a natural gas pipeline here somewhere. Why don’t we sell it?” They get a check for $20,000 a month, just for selling their natural gas.

They will buy you a toilet.  Whether you are a family with three bathrooms or a hotel, they will replace your  toilets free. They will come and put the toilet in because they know that the amount of water that a water-wasting toilet uses in 8 years the new toilet pays for itself because of the water they don’t have to go find and provide.

In a place like Minnesota, you have a disadvantage over a place like Texas or Nevada or even California. Everybody kind of knows that water’s scarce whereas people in Minnesota assume the one thing they don’t have to worry about is their water supply . And so it may be that it’s a little harder to even start having the conversation. I gather you guys are actually having  some problems and that gives you an advantage.

Q: What are your thoughts about groundwater management areas (the approach that Minnesota is taking in three areas to get water users involved in determining how to divide up a limited resource)?

A: I think groundwater management districts are great because they create a system in which you can acknowledge that water doesn’t follow the political boundaries at all and that even in a place like Minnesota, water actually requires management.

Q: Have you seen any place where users agree to restrict their own use?

A: Kansas is experimenting with something. They call them local enhanced management areas. They’re voluntary but enforceable. You agree to impose it on yourself but then you have to abide by it. To me what a groundwater management area does is, it says, “The water here is not unlimited and the economic activity that’s already taking place is having an impact on the sustainability of the water. If we continue to behave the way we’re behaving now, we won’t be able to behave that way anymore in 10 years or 15 years or 40 years. And we’re going to acknowledge that you all are the people who are both causing the problem but also relying on the water. We’re going to pour data on you. We’re going to show you what the problem is and then we’re going to say let’s see if you can solve the problem among yourselves.”

Personally I would say price is a great way of doing it, rather than imposing rules on people.

Now, the creation of the groundwater management area also allows you to say at some point, “You didn’t fix the problem, we’ll step in now.” It creates the preliminary groundwork for handling the problem in a different way if people don’t actually come together and solve the problem.

Q: In Minnesota, the state has the legal authority; the question is will they really have the political authority.

A: There have to be some consequences if people don’t take the rules seriously.

The structure creates accountability. Who’s actually asking the question, how much water are we using and is that the right amount? Is that a sustainable amount?

One thing I wanted to say in thinking about you guys. Water is part of the recreational life of anybody who goes outside in Minnesota and I think that provides a kind of lever for connecting the dots on water consciousness. When people go out into the community to kayak, cross country ski, to sail, and canoe and camp that there should be a way of connecting their reliance on and their appreciation of the natural water resources with the water that comes out of their tap and, by the way,  goes down the drain three inches later.

To me one of the lessons of West Virginia is how fragile our sense of safe water is. It’s just insane that the sense of trust about that water evaporates and is destroyed with one event and will take many years to restore.

It’s important to merge in people’s minds the water that they kayak on and the water they drink or flush their toilets with or grow soybeans with is all the same water. And if you screw up the water in the lake or the river, it’s not just, “Dammit, I won’t be able to eat the trout.” It’s “What am I doing to everything else that relies on this water.”

On the other hand, you all have an asset that lots of places don’t. Why the hell does Intel build microschip factories in Phoenix, where there is no water when those factories gulp water like they were industrial scale farms. Why aren’t they building the microchip factories in Minnesota?

Why don’t you sell the availability of water as an asset especially to people who have water-dependent businesses, and the caveat is, “You have to appreciate that part of our water culture is there’s lots of water and you gotta  give it back to the environment in the condition you took it in.”


Q: Is industry moving faster than residents when it comes to conservation?

A: Absolutely. All across the board. Companies are very worried about water risk. You go to water meetings and Wells Fargo and Bank of America are there. OK, Mr. Wells Fargo, what are you doing at the water conference? ‘Oh my God, every data center we run relies on water. We are nervous as all heck. We want data centers running on re-use water.’ They unleash themselves. If the bankers are at risk, everybody’s at risk.

So Google has put in place a cutting edge data center in Atlanta that uses re-use water. And Coke, Intel, IBM. Ford has got a really amazing effort. From 2000 to 2010 Ford cut the amount of water it took to produce a car by 50 percent. They were so happy with the results of that they doubled the goal and cut the time in half. They’re cutting the amount of water by 50 percent again by 2015. So a car produced in 2015 will use about a quarter or a third the amount of water that a similar car would have used 15 years ago.

I would guess there are lots of people even in a place like Minnesota where water sustainability issues are part of the larger corporate culture. Pentair is one of the big water infrastructure providers globally.

Twenty years ago, a typical farmer had no idea what parts of his or her field produced what  yield. Now any farmer worth his or her salt, has a combine with yield meter and a GPS system and you go harvest 5,000 acres of corn and when you get back to the office there’s a map that shows you which part of your field produced the highest amount of corn.

Ten years ago there was no way of mapping the moisture in your field. So the rule of thumb is give the entire field as much water as the driest part of the field might need and we’ll be OK. And now, in the same way, for $5 a unit you can sensor your entire field and you know how wet the field is or how dry the field is and you know how much moisture the field needs. So you can only add the water you need to add in the places you need to add it. What I found over and over in water stories, is that people tackle what they think is the problem right in front of them and then they discover this incredible array of benefits. So the golf courses in Las Vegas have water budgets and the budgets are reduced 5 percent a year. They get paid to take out turf. They rip out the grass; they save mowing cots, seed and fertilizer costs. They save the cost of sprinkler heads. Rabbits in Las Vegas eat sprinkler heads. If there are no sprinkler heads you don’t have to replace the ones that get eaten. Am I saving a $100,000 a year on that? No. Am I saving $5,000  a year? Absolutely.

Everybody finds that when you start saving water there are so many other things you didn’t expect that cascade out of that.