Upcoming Great Lakes, water, and environmental law conferences in November 2012
U.S. Supreme Court Allows Takings Claim to Proceed for Temporary Flooding by Dam Releases, but Remands for Consideration of State Water Law Doctrine

A Compelling Call for a New Water Ethic – Reviewing Cynthia Barnett’s “Blue Revolution”


In “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis” (Beacon Press), author Cynthia Barnett balances urgency and optimism in describing how our water crisis can be solved with a new water ethic. Barnett’s previous book, “Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.” exposed the myth of water abundance and detailed how law, policy, economics, politics, business, and American culture have all contributed to a system of water overuse and abuse. “Blue Revolution” is an inspiring sequel to “Mirage.” Barnett first looks at the challenges facing America’s freshwater – overuse, degradation, and pollution, caused by all sectors of our economy, sanctioned by all levels of government. It’s easy to simply point fingers at corporations and governments, but Barnett knows the problems are both deeper and simpler than blaming big institutions. Instead, Barnett goes to the underlying cause of our water crisis – a lack of a water ethic. 

Barnett’s solution is to rekindle our natural connection to water and sense of stewardship, then create and instill a new water ethic in our society. Barnett’s water ethic begins with valuing water, “from appreciating local streams to pricing water right.” According to Barnett, our water ethic would lead to cooperation in conserving water rather than fighting to divide water up. It would strive to keep water local, use it sustainably, and leave future generations with the freedom to make their own water use decisions rather than paying for the choices of the past. Beyond these general goals, Barnett doesn’t presume to know exactly what this water ethic will look like for all people. For starters, it will vary by region and community. Some actions can be taken by an individual (the new movement in rainwater harvesting), while some actions require our collective efforts through government (San Antonio’s comprehensive policies to reduce municipal water use). In conceptualizing a water ethic, Barnett builds on the work of Aldo Leopold and his hydrologist son Luna. Barnett sees religion as a partner in shaping a water ethic, sees law and policy as the result of our water ethic (or current lack thereof), and sees science as an informational tool to make ethical decisions. 

Cynthia Barnett will be speaking at the University of Michigan-Dearborn on Friday December 7 (see flier for details). One of the questions she will be exploring with the audience is what a water ethic would like in the Great Lakes region. We are blessed with a relative abundance of freshwater, but this abundance comes with a tremendous responsibility. While our wells aren’t running dry, our region struggles with pollution, invasive species, and balancing many competing uses (human and natural) for our shared waters. But we can meet these challenges. For example, the Great Lakes Compact reflects some elements of a water ethic for our region – a shared sense of stewardship, cooperative protection, a preference to keep water use local (‘living with the watershed’), and a commitment to conserve water for nature and future generations. It’s just a start, and much more needs to be done. But I share Barnett’s fundamental optimism that with a new water ethic, we can solve our water crisis and be responsible stewards of our freshwater.