State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Ripple Effect Author Talks Efficiency; Cleanup

Ripple Effect author Alex Prud'Homme (L) and Written in Water editor Irena Salina (R) at Bryant Park's outdoor reading room. Photo by Benjamin Preston

You don’t have to be Julia Child’s grandnephew to write a book, but it doesn’t hurt. Alex Prud’Homme worked with his legendary great aunt on her memoir before she passed away in 2004. Shifting focus, he released a book about water last month: The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century. A narrative journey though the problems of water quality, drought, flood and water supply in the 21st Century, Prud’Homme’s book attempts to establish the interconnectedness of water use with food supply, energy consumption, climate change, and a variety of other factors. During a brief appearance last month on the Daily Show, he managed to keep more or less of a poker face as he wove through Jon Stewart’s patchwork of light jokes to explain the world’s impending water supply challenges.

This week, beneath the leafy cover of Bryant Park’s Outdoor Reading Room in New York City, Prud’Homme joined a public discussion with editor Scott Dodd and documentary filmmaker Irena Salina—producer of the 2008 water film, Flow, and editor of a collection of water essays released this year entitled Written in Water: A Message for the Future. Perhaps not surprisingly, the talk focused heavily upon water contamination as a major factor of a dwindling global water supply. From Newtown Creek’s “ black mayonnaise” to pharmaceutical contamination in groundwater, Prud’Homme suggested that pollutants past and present are beginning to converge into a worrisome cocktail, the cumulative effects of which aren’t yet known. Part of his research for the book revealed that pharmaceutical contamination in the Chesapeake Bay has caused male bass there to grow eggs in their testes.

Newtown Creek, in all its decaying urban glory, is the aqueous dividing line between Brooklyn and Queens in New York City. 2008. Photo by Jim Henderson via WikiCommons

“Why should we care?” he asked the Bryant Park audience. “It turns out that the human endocrine system is very similar to fishes’.” He pointed out that despite the fact that we’ve known about the negative impacts of pesticides and fossil fuel contaminants for decades, cleanups and more stringent regulations have been slow to arrive. In short, overall pollution did not diminish following intense environmental activism during the 1960s and 70s. It has become more severe as legacy pollutants compound with new, more potent ones.

“Reading his book is like watching a science fiction novel,” said Salina at this week’s discussion, opining that the time has come for individuals to speak up about pollution. “We can’t leave it to the EPA. Unless we participate, change isn’t possible.”

The talk also honed in on the expense and necessity of maintaining water infrastructure. Prud’Homme pointed out that because of the cost involved, people can’t expect to get water for free. At the same time, he cited the need for water, as an essential commodity, to be affordable. As a way to maintain that balance, he suggested a 13 gallon per person per day water allotment—not much by American standards, but huge when compared to the five gallon per family per day allotment given in some undeveloped parts of the world. That much would be guaranteed as a basic human necessity; the rest would be assigned in a tiered rate structure, much like those used in parts of Santa Barbara County, California.

“Here in NYC, we have access to some of the best water in the world,” said Prud’Homme, who still believes mounting water challenges can be met with engineering solutions. “We’re really lucky—we can turn on the tap at any time of day and water will come out. But we’re not so different from Philadelphia and Los Angeles—our water comes from 100 miles away. We forget how much work goes into maintaining that.”

Jameson Lake, Santa Barbara County, Calif. The Montecito Water District, which operates the reservoir, adopted a tiered rate structure in 2008. 2010. Photo by Benjamin Preston

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