BookShelf: Author Shares Unorthodox Look at the Ways of Water
“Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge”
By Erica Gies
University of Chicago Press, $26
Reviewed by Tom Henry
It’s a movement that doesn’t come out and grab you because it’s, well, slow.
It’s like what Frank Allen, founder of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, used to say about environmental writing in general: The stories on our beat don’t break. They ooze.
That brings us to Erica Gies’ new book, “Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.” Outstanding in many ways, it’s a must-read for most, no, all of us environmental reporters. And those who care about the environment. And those who care about water. That approximates Earth’s 8 billion people and counting.
As a Great Lakes guy and a water geek myself, I’ve read a lot of books about water and have also written about the subject a little bit myself. But what really began to turn me on about this book once I got into it was something I hadn’t considered much. That is the physics of water movement.
You know, the flow. Not so much the power of the current, which can be impressive in any river. But the speed and manner in which water percolates through soil and how it moves through our system — how we, as a world, chose to harness or not harness it.
How water shapes our landscapes
Gies makes a case for how slow water is better than fast water, a lesson that apparently has never been heeded where I live because northwest Ohio historically was known as the Great Black Swamp, and farmers here — unlike many other parts of the world — have installed drainage tiles to keep water moving off their land as fast as possible in order to avoid flooding.
I’ll concede I’m a nerd who likes physics more than a lot of people, so don’t let me lead you to believe that’s all this book offers. On the contrary, Gies gives us a global, panoramic look at how water has shaped our landscapes, how it’s used, how mankind usually fails at efforts to manipulate it through levees, dams and breakwalls, and how our relationship with water says a lot about who we are.
She begins a fascinating chapter about floodplains with an old joke among water advocates: “There are two kinds of levees — those that have failed and those that are going to fail.” She then proceeds to make a strong case for why there’s more truth than cynicism in that phrase.
Gies takes the reader on an amazing journey to faraway nations of China, Iraq, India, Peru and Kenya for a look at how water is managed or, perhaps more appropriately, respected. She follows up on major U.S. events such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. She writes about what works and doesn’t work in places like San Francisco Bay, British Columbia, the Midwest, Canada and Great Britain.
Why efforts to dominate water fail
It’s not an overly sentimental book by any means. It’s a well-reasoned, intelligent and passionate examination of humankind’s relationship with water and why efforts to dominate over it aren’t working.
You get hints of the global rights-of-nature movement without feeling like this is an overt campaign for it. Gies just offers evidence of why water and everything connected to it — wetlands, floodplains and so forth — need more respect.
She explains how, after decades of resistance, people in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world are starting to reconsider how close they live to shorelines and stop thinking they’re “giving up” by moving to higher ground, a planning strategy she calls managed retreat.
The concept is finally being embraced, of course, because of how climate change is becoming more acute, greatly exacerbating flooding risks. And it’s a disproportionate embrace, as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, because low-income neighborhoods tend to be in low-lying areas.
‘Both managed retreat and amphibious housing
are the ultimate expression of Slow Water thinking,
of accepting and working within what water wants.’
— Author Erica Gies
“Both managed retreat and amphibious housing are the ultimate expression of Slow Water thinking, of accepting and working within what water wants,” Gies wrote.
What water wants? Yes, she argues, the world has plenty of examples in which efforts to manipulate nature have failed or produced marginal results.
Gies does not at all come off as an anti-engineering activist, but as more of a pragmatist who has come to realize that humans need to back off and give water, wetlands and other features of nature more respect in order to coexist with it.
It’s a fundamental shift in thinking that seeps in as the reader wades through her book’s 292 pages.
“Retreat is never easy,” Gies wrote. “I know this close at hand; fascism and genocide forced my father, uncle, and grandparents to flee their country and continent.”
She added that it’s “likely I exist today because my family escaped” and that managed retreat is not failure, it’s a new opportunity.
Numerous ‘water detectives’
Gies makes repeated references to her many sources as “water detectives,” which include anyone from hydrologists to urban planners she relied upon.
One source near the end of the book, architect-engineer Elizabeth English, now an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, is particularly charming. A Baton Rouge resident when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana shoreline in 2005, she specialized in understanding the physics of hurricane-force winds on homes and other structures and has been working to help provide more sustainable post-Katrina homes to residents of the Ninth Ward.
‘Let water go where it wants to go. … Let nature
be nature and don’t try to control everything.’
— Architect-engineer Elizabeth English
English began advocating for amphibious housing — or floating homes — that she learned about in other parts of the world, such as in the Netherlands and Thailand. “My belief system is to let water go where it wants to go,” English said. “And we accommodate it by getting out of the way. Let nature be nature and don’t try to control everything.”
Gies said English’s views are considered subversive, if not radical, in relation to what Gies describes as the “dominant development culture.” English, for instance, is among those who question the wisdom of levees in the first place.
“It’s crazy to put a wall around a floodplain and assume it won’t flood,” English told Gies. “You know, it infuriated me then and it still infuriates me. I mean, honestly, how can you have such hubris to think that, just because they put a levee there, it’s not a floodplain anymore!”
I was glad to see Gies give a nod to critters, too, from beavers to voles. She devotes a chapter to beavers that doesn’t just add a cute touch; it really helps explain their mission.
This book takes a brilliant, if unorthodox, look at how humans interact with water.
Tom Henry is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor and created The (Toledo) Blade’s environment beat in 1993. As one of the most experienced Great Lakes writers, he is known as quite a water geek himself.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 33. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.