Last Call at the Oasis

The Global Water Crisis and Where We Go from Here


By Participant

Edited by Karl Weber

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“If there was a price placed on clean water we might start treating it like it has value. Maybe when it’s gone we’ll realize we can’t drink oil or money.” — Dave Matthews

Less than 1 percent of the world’s water is fresh and potable — and no more will ever be available. Thanks to pollution, global warming, and population growth, water access is poised to become today’s most explosive global issue. This book, based on the film Last Call at the Oasis by Academy Award-winning director Jessica Yu, offers insights into the coming water crisis from visionary scientists, policymakers, activists, and environmentalists, including:

  • ROBERT MORAN on how oil and mineral development pollute and divert water supplies — often beyond public scrutiny
  • PETER H. GLEICK on discovering the “soft path” to global water security
  • ROBERT GLENNON on how the power of markets can help protect the world’s water
  • LYNN HENNING on how a family farmer became a passionate “water activist”
  • ALEX PRUD’HOMME on how the water crisis affects us all
  • GARY WHITE on how innovative social and economic strategies can make clean water available even for the world’s poorest people
  • HADLEY ARNOLD AND PETER ARNOLD on how arid regions like America’s Southwest can wisely husband water supplies for cities and farmers alike
  • ROBYN BEAVERS on how today’s smartest businesses are making sustainable water management a competitive advantage
  • ZEM JOAQUIN on nine “ecofabulous” ways of saving water at home — and doing it with style
  • BILL MCDONOUGH on how smart design can preserve water’s “Endless Resourcefulness” for generations to come

No resource on earth is more precious — or more endangered — than water. Last Call at the Oasis is a powerful tool for learning about the water challenges we face as well as the remarkable solutions available to us — if we have the will to use them.


ALSO BY Participant Media
Page One
Waiting for "Superman"
Cane Toads and Other Rogue Species
Food, Inc.

The headlines tell the story: "Water Pollution Report Sends Shockwaves Through Shale Gas Industry"; "In China City of Four Million, No Water"; "Radioactive Water Spills at New Brunswick Nuclear Plant"; "Environmentalists Oppose Proposed Wyoming-to-Colorado Water Pipeline"; "Water Is More Important Than Oil for UAE: Mohammed bin Zayed"; "Water Risk to 500 Australian Farms, Dairy Industry Fears"; "New Reports Finds Aging Water Infrastructure Burdens US Economy"; "Spread of Fracking Leads to Fears of Water Shortages." That's literally one day's harvest of water-related stories from Google News—and we stopped listing them because we got tired, not because we reached the end of the collection.
Water woes are everywhere, and in a host of forms: floods and droughts, shortages of potable water, pollution and contamination, overuse and misuse in developed countries, lack of access in developing countries, crumbling infrastructure, endangered water habitats, excessive and ecologically dangerous damming, political and military battles over water rights . . . the list goes on and on. This poses the question: How have we humans allowed ourselves to reach such a crisis point with one of the most vital necessities of life (second only to the air we breathe)?
That's the question that the important new documentary film Last Call at the Oasis sets out to explore—and the same question we tackle in this book.
If you've seen the movie, you've probably picked up this companion book in hopes of learning more about the complex issues so vividly depicted by filmmaker Jessica Yu. If you haven't seen the movie, we strongly recommend it—and we hope you'll also read this book to enjoy a deeper, wider-ranging exploration of many of the crucial water challenges our planet faces today.
Here's an overview of the book's contents.
After a brief prologue, "All Bets Are Off," which sets the stage through an excerpt from a prescient novel about a devastating water shortage in New York City—originally published almost fifty years ago!—Part One offers several perspectives on the worsening water crises the peoples of the world face. "Water Realities" presents a summary of key facts, statistics, trends, and relationships, painting a stark picture of our reliance on dwindling, endangered water supplies and the challenges we'll face in remedying the problem. In "Exploring Oasis," director Jessica Yu describes the experience of researching and filming Last Call at the Oasis, and what she learned about the psychology of water use—and water abuse—in the process.
Next, heroic pollution fighter Lynn Henning tells her own story in "From Farmer to Water Activist," explaining how industrial farming is threatening an age-old way of life in America's Midwest—as well as the water supplies on which we all rely. In "Clean Water—The Price of Gold?" hydrogeologist Robert Moran reveals how "resource extraction" industries such as energy and mining are damaging water supplies worldwide, and often doing so in near-total secrecy created by uncontrolled corporate power. Finally Alex Prud'homme, author of the book The Ripple Effect, which helped inspire Last Call at the Oasis, recounts his own education in the realities of the world's water, and warns us that, as the title of his chapter states, there's "No Time to Waste."
In Part Two of the book, we shift from reviewing the problems with water to describing possible solutions. First, today's leading expert on water and the environment, Peter H. Gleick of the Pacific Institute, explains his famous concept of the "soft path"—a more sustainable approach to improving global water supply than traditional massive infrastructure projects—in his chapter "A Way Forward?" Then Gary White, CEO of, explains in "In Our Lifetime" how creative ways of thinking about, organizing, funding, and managing water projects can bring essential water resources for the first time to the billions of people in the developing world. In their chapter, "Drawing Water," visionary designers Hadley Arnold and Peter Arnold describe their new approach to urban planning, which is already beginning to transform how western cities, such as Burbank, California, handle their precious water resources. And in her chapter, "From Crisis to Competitive Advantage," Robyn Beavers explains how farseeing companies, such as Google, are recognizing the importance of sustainable water management and altering their resource-use policies accordingly.
Next, in "Diamonds in Disguise," legal expert and acclaimed author Robert Glennon discusses the market and regulatory failures that underlie today's water crises, and explains how redesigned systems for organizing the distribution and use of water can encourage conservation and ensure that all people have enough water for their needs. Two chapters of highly practical advice come next. In "Ten Simple Ways You Can Help Protect Our Water," the National Resources Defense Council offers ideas everyone can begin following today to reduce pollution and end needless water waste. And in "Nine Ecofabulous Ways to Save Water at Home—And Do It with Style," Zem Joaquin offers tips for smarter ways of using water in your bathroom, kitchen, and elsewhere at home, including recommendations of new products and technologies that are making sustainable living not just practical but fun.
Finally, in "Endless Resourcefulness," William McDonough, perhaps today's most acclaimed thinker about the relationship between humans and the planet they inhabit, offers a series of provocative, fascinating observations about the value of water and the power of intelligent design to enhance and expand that value. McDonough's insights conclude Part Two on an optimistic note: water, he says, is a potentially infinite resource—providing we have the wisdom and the will to use it correctly.
The last section of the book, Part Three, is a resource guide containing five annotated lists that readers wanting to get further involved in water issues will find useful. Included are a list of water-related organizations that deserve your support, lists of online information tools and activist campaigns you'll find illuminating and inspiring, an annotated list of some of the best books about water and the global challenges we face in managing and conserving it, and finally, a hat-tip to the people who brought Last Call at the Oasis to a theater near you.
In the course of editing this book and working with the brilliant, committed authors who've contributed to it, I've come to learn how complex, fascinating, and important are the water issues our species is grappling with. No single book could hope to capture every nuance of these issues. But I hope you'll find Last Call at the Oasis—this book as well as the film of the same name—to be a valuable introduction to the challenges of water and a small but meaningful step toward discovering a more sustainable, water-friendly way of life for you, your family, and the larger human community.
Karl Weber
Irvington, New York
December 2011

An Excerpt from The Day New York Went Dry
by Charles Einstein (1964)
Journalist, novelist, and screenwriter Charles Einstein (1926–2007) enjoyed a long and varied career working on both coasts of the United States. Today he probably is best remembered for his writing about baseball, particularly his coverage of the career of San Francisco Giants star Willie Mays for that city's Chronicle and Examiner newspapers, and for his editing of a much-loved series of Fireside Books of Baseball. But Einstein was also a successful writer of fiction. His novel The Bloody Spur was made into the 1956 film noir classic While the City Sleeps by director Fritz Lang.
Einstein's 1964 novel, The Day New York Went Dry, from which this excerpt is taken, offers a prescient glimpse of a world in which supplies of freshwater are running out—with catastrophic consequences for modern society. In the excerpt, Einstein's protagonist, reporter Don Marlowe, is trying to convince a skeptical group of policy makers that a drought and water shortage plaguing New York City represents more than just a temporary inconvenience, but rather the opening assault from what could prove to be an existential threat to the city and its 8 million residents.
Marlowe knew now he was getting through to them. For the first time, he reached into the pocket of his suit coat, drew out a small folded square of paper, unfolded it, and gazed down at the notes he had made.
"Realistically," he said, "there are five possibilities. The first one is that it rains like hell. That'll take care of our problem right there. I mean rain rain rain. And it looks like this just isn't going to happen.
"Number two—the city can cut off the water a certain number of hours per day. I mean just plain cut it off. Serve places like hospitals with tank trucks if necessary, but for x number of hours a day just stop the delivery of water."
A voice said: "What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong with that," Marlowe said, "is not when you stop it but where you stop it. And what do people do when it's stopped? Do they use toilets? Do they wash clothes? Does the brewery in Long Island City make beer? Can the fire department fight fires?" His voice dropped. "Worst of all, what is there to keep people from hoarding water while it's turned on, against the time when it's off? Oh . . ." he nodded ". . . you can do it. It takes what amounts to a police state, but you can do it. I wouldn't recommend it."
Again he nodded. "Number three, you can tap new sources. The Hudson's there." He paused imperceptibly. "The Delaware's there. But you have to look at your equipment. There are places right now, up the Hudson, where, emergency pipes lead to the river, in case delivery from farther upstate is interrupted. But those pipes are for that purpose. They don't contemplate drought. If the river's down, then the pipes have to be lowered some way to get into it. And then you have an added purification problem. We're not set up to tap river water."
Again he nodded. "Number four, we can figure out a way to take what's already been done and literally talk the people into conserving water. I take it that this is what this meeting's for. I don't mean not sprinkling or not shaving or not washing cars or not cleaning streets. That's already been done. I mean a totally new, additional approach to the entire problem. Gentlemen, more than fifty percent of our water usage is straight residential. These are the people who read the papers and the signs and the television commercials. And that's what I suggest here. I don't know what else this meeting is for."
A voice at the table: "Those are the four possibilities?" Marlowe gazed at his notes. "Just about. Actually, there are five."
"What's the fifth?"
"That we get less than normal rainfall."
"Then what?"
"Then all bets are off."

Part I

By the Editor1
Water: It's essential to life on Earth . . . a vital medium for the nutrients that sustain us . . . a feature in the landscapes most beloved by humans everywhere . . . and in all its forms, from raindrops to rivers to waterfalls to fountains to clouds, ice, and snow, perhaps the most varied and beautiful substance on our planet. When our bodies run short of water, during strenuous exercise or in the dog days of summer, we crave it intensely and imbibe it with unalloyed delight; when water is scarce, societies will pay almost any price to obtain it, building giant dams and reservoirs, aqueducts and pipelines, purification plants and desalination systems, to secure the precious fluid. Yet when water seems plentiful, we take it for granted. And so most of us in the developed nations of the world give little thought, day in and day out, to the water we rely upon.
Hence this chapter, whose purpose is to ground our conversations about water in some of the challenging realities we so casually ignore.


Water comes in three forms—gas, solid, and liquid—which routinely transmute into one another through the processes of freezing, thawing, evaporation, and condensation. These three forms of water, in finite amounts, continue to be recycled through Earth's global ecosystem in the ever-renewing hydrological cycle. This means we are drinking the same water that the dinosaurs drank, that Cleopatra bathed in, and that splashed in the gardens of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. We can't create water; the volume of water on our planet is fixed and somehow must support all human, animal, and plant life for as long as we dwell on the earth.
Though 70 percent of Earth's surface is covered by water, less than 1 percent of that water is the freshwater essential for our survival. With the human population on our planet having surpassed the 7 billion mark, it's no wonder we are living in an era of increased water scarcity and variability. An estimated 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, while 2 billion lack adequate sanitation.2
According to Jay Famiglietti, professor at the University of California at Irvine and director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling, "Our work is showing that virtually all of the aquifers in the mid-latitudes (these are the arid and semiarid regions of the world) are under threat and have been losing water for many years."3 A study in Nature found that 3.4 billion people live in regions where their freshwater supply is insecure.4
According to other analyses, one-third of the global population lives in "water-stressed" areas and 8 percent in "severely water-stressed" regions, which includes parts of the western United States, along with places such as Australia, southern Africa, and northern Mexico.5 Depending on the region, "water stress" has different meanings. In developed areas, such as the American Southwest, "water stress" refers to the region's inability to support further economic development because of water shortages. In developing countries, the term means inadequate water for drinking, sanitation, and agriculture, while in emerging economies (such as China and India), it means the growing middle class's lifestyle needs cannot be met.
Several factors contribute to these growing water stresses, including population growth (global population is expected to hit 10 billion by 2050),6 dwindling water supplies, climate change, water mismanagement, and economic development (since most forms of manufacturing, energy production, and resource extraction use large amounts of water).
In the United States, drinking water comes from massive, intricate systems comprising rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, aquifers (natural underground water reservoirs), and other bodies of water. Three major river systems—the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the San Joaquin—provide water to eight states. The largest aquifer in the United States is the Ogallala, stretching across seven states, from North Dakota to Texas. Forests, meadows, and other open spaces are critical to capturing water for these systems. In fact, an estimated 18 percent of the nation's total water supply and 60 percent of the water used in the western states comes from National Forests managed by the US Department of Agriculture.7
These natural sources of water are converted for human use through a vast man-made infrastructure of reservoirs, aqueducts, dams, pipelines, purification and treatment plants, and other devices. Unfortunately, the US water system is currently in bad condition—underfunded, aging, limited in its capacity, and not adaptable to our changing climate. The crumbling system means leaky pipes, polluted water, and poor conservation, all of which costs the nation billions of dollars annually. Particularly in arid regions, the infrastructure is not designed to capture rainwater for municipal use but rather, as in such cities as Los Angeles, to remove it as quickly as possible and send it to the ocean. The ironic result is that Los Angeles imports most of its water rather than capturing and using the significant amount of storm water it receives.8
Major new investments in infrastructure are needed to render our national water system adequate for the demands of the twenty-first century. Fortunately, some innovative infrastructure development is occurring in cities across the country, including Philadelphia (which is in the midst of a twenty-year project to build massive green infrastructure to capture water), Milwaukee (a world water hub for infrastructure and conservation), Los Angeles (pioneering a multiagency approach to conservation), and New York (focusing on green infrastructure development).
Meanwhile, growing regions of the world—including parts of the United States—can expect to experience steadily worsening levels of water shortage, with wide-ranging consequences. For example, Las Vegas County, with a population of 2 million, will lose the power generated by Hoover Dam when Lake Mead's water elevation falls below 1,050 feet (the height of the lake's "upper intake" system, which feeds the dam). With Lake Mead at 1,086 feet during the filming of Last Call at the Oasis in 2011—and falling by around ten feet every year—that is only four years away.


Water shortages are not the only challenge facing our water supply. There are also serious quality problems that belie the widespread assumption that residents of advanced countries, such as the United States, no longer need to worry about the purity and safety of their drinking water.
Two historic laws regulate the safety of water supplies in the United States: the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA). Passed by Congress in 1974, the SDWA regulates ground and surface waters used for human consumption. Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the law allows the agency to establish, amend, and update standards for public water systems (subject to review and change by congressional and Supreme Court decisions). However, 40 million citizens use well water, not municipal water, which isn't regulated by the SDWA.
The Clean Water Act, originally passed by Congress in 1972, regulates pollutants and protects surface waters (rivers, lakes, and so on). Permits must be obtained from the EPA to discharge pollutants into these waters. The CWA represents an important milestone in the nation's commitment to protecting our water supply. However, the existence of a law is not enough to produce results on the ground. According to a 2009 report in the New York Times, the CWA was violated half a million times in the previous five years.9
A wide variety of pollutants can be found in the water that Americans rely on for personal consumption. For example, hexavalent chromium (chromium-6), the "Erin Brockovich contaminant" featured in the eponymous film, is a carcinogen used in paints, dyes, and plastics, as an anticorrosive agent, and in welding. It traditionally has entered drinking water from leaks at industrial plants and hazardous waste sites.10 Now it is being introduced into both municipal and well water systems through "fracking," as discussed below.11 A study by the Environmental Working Group found hexavalent chromium in thirty-one of thirty-five municipal drinking water systems, with Honolulu, Hawaii; Riverside, California; Norman, Oklahoma; Madison, Wisconsin; and San Jose, California, topping the list.12
The gas-extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is spreading across the United States. Chemicals mixed with water are drilled into shale rock to release deeply trapped natural gas. Due to the so-called Halliburton loophole in the SDWA, which was created by the 2005 energy bill, companies are not required to publicly disclose the chemicals used in this process. But water in and near fracking sites has been contaminated with high levels of ethane, benzene, methane, and hexavalent chromium. Communities affected by fracking have been plagued by severely polluted groundwater (including flammable drinking water due to methane in the water) 13 and a host of health problems for residents, including cancer and brain tumors.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee's 2011 investigation of fracking "found that 14 of the nation's most active hydraulic fracturing companies used 866 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products—not including water. More than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants."14
Atrazine is another widespread contaminant of American drinking water. The second–most common herbicide used on corn—which is itself the number-one crop in the United States—atrazine is found in 94 percent of all drinking water tested by the USDA.15 A known endocrine disruptor that causes birth defects and cancer, atrazine is banned in the European Union and is currently under review at the EPA.16
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a significant source of water pollution. These massive factory farms generate 500 million tons of manure annually, equivalent to many American cities. However, they are not required to treat the waste in the same way as municipalities. Instead the waste is stored in lagoons and later spread on nearby farmland, where it seeps into and contaminates local water sources and kills aquatic life.17 Other agricultural processes also contribute to water pollution. For example, nitrates found in animal waste and fertilizer (and associated with so-called blue baby syndrome) have contaminated rural and urban California drinking water, including in Los Angeles. 18
Yet another form of pollution is pharmaceutical chemicals that find their way into water supplies after being discarded at home, dumped or excreted into sewage systems, or carelessly disposed of by manufacturers. Wastewater treatment plants are unable to properly treat these contaminants in the drinking water. According to an AP investigation, the drinking water used by 41 million Americans contains measurable amounts of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, mood stabilizers, sex hormones, and anticonvulsants.19
Storm water runoff, a growing problem because of increased flooding due to climate change, is the number-one source for contaminants of municipal drinking water. City systems cannot capture and treat all of the flood water, which means more polluted water is dumped into oceans, rivers, and other regional water sources.


Americans have long been accustomed to the notion of an energy shortage caused by growing demand, dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, and our troubling dependence on unstable, sometimes hostile foreign regimes for oil, gas, and other resources. Less familiar, however, is the profound interconnection between energy use and water use, which experts have begun calling "the energy-water nexus." This nexus is emerging as a critical issue for public policy, business leaders, and economic thinkers.
The connections between energy and water run in several directions. In many regions, especially arid ones, energy is used to move water to where it needs to be. As we've already noted in the case of Los Angeles, this is often due to our failure to invest in systems that use available groundwater and the capturing of storm water rather than "importing" water over long distances via pipelines. The California State Water Project pumps water 2,000 feet over mountains, using a lot of energy and vast amounts of money in the process. And 90 percent of all the energy used in California's agricultural sector is for pumping groundwater for irrigation—another huge, largely wasted expense. 20
Furthermore, moving water around is difficult as well as costly. Water is very heavy compared to its economic value, which means that transporting water long distances generally is not economically feasible. For example, a barrel of oil weighs about 125 kilograms (275 pounds) and has been valued at between $35 and $145 on the world market in the past ten years.21 The same volume of water weighs about 159 kilograms (350 pounds), and in one (rather expensive) US municipality is sold to households for about 14 cents. It's easy to see that the lower value of water makes moving it highly impractical from an economic standpoint.
Furthermore, unlike with some other commodities, a global market for water does not exist. This means that water resources must be optimized and managed locally. This makes water very different from greenhouse gas emissions. A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil theoretically could offset increasing emissions in the United States, but the abundance of freshwater in the Brazilian Amazon is not helpful for the drought-prone American Southwest.
On the other side of the energy-water nexus is the use of water to produce energy, for example, through hydroelectric dams. In the United States, about half the water withdrawn is for cooling power plants. US power plants withdrew enough freshwater each day in 2008 to supply 60 to 170 cities the size of New York.22 Beyond cooling power plants, water is used to produce natural gas and liquid fuels from raw materials. On average, producing one liter of oil requires one to three liters of water. Producing gasoline from oil sands requires from three to fifty-five liters of water per liter of gasoline.


On Sale
Apr 24, 2012
Page Count
272 pages


About the Author

Karl Weber is a writer and editor whose work focuses on social, political, and business topics. He has worked with Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus, former president Jimmy Carter, and secretary of defense Ash Carter. Weber is also the proprietor of Rivertowns Books, an independent publishing imprint.

Learn more about this author