While growing up in California, Erica Gies became aware of the state’s water scarcity, which she told Great Lakes Now has led to a “low-key obsession about water for just about everyone in the state.”
California’s droughts have been a regular occurrence that put a spotlight on the importance of water for Gies, fostering a writing career on the topic that has spanned 15 years.
A result of her work is “Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge,” which Gies’ publisher describes as “quietly radical.” After four years of travel, research and writing, the book is scheduled for a June release.
Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson recently spoke with Gies, who explained how our attempts to control water have led to an “us versus them mentality” on water issues. She spelled out the concept of Slow Water, which emphasizes place, community and collaboration instead of control when dealing with water issues. Gies explained why diversions of water are a bad idea, and she provided advice for the Great Lakes region on how to best cope with fluctuating lake levels.
Gies has written for various publications including The New York Times, The Guardian and The Atlantic, and she completed an Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources workshop on fluctuating lake levels in the Great Lakes region.
More information on Water Always Wins can be found at University of Chicago Press.
The interview was conducted via email and phone and was recorded, transcribed and edited for clarity and length.
Great Lakes Now: The book title, Water Always Wins, denotes a competition, that there’s a winner and a loser. Is that the case based on our relationship with water?
Erica Gies: Mainstream development over the last 150 years or so has taken a very control-oriented approach to water. We build levees to keep it within riverbanks; we hold great reserves behind dams; we fill wetlands with dirt and build apartments on top; we rush stormwater out of cities as fast as possible to prevent flooding.
In our attempts to control water, we create that us-against-them, win-lose dynamic. And more and more often, these attempts at control are failing. Levees break, reservoirs empty, former wetlands are often the first to flood.
But not all humans think of water as either a commodity or a threat. I met people who consider water to be a friend or relative. Instead of trying to control water, they collaborate with it, take care of it and reap benefits – Including fewer floods and droughts, greater biodiversity, more carbon storage.
Great Lakes Now: In the introduction, you write about hidden creeks and secret streams that have their own agendas, and diverse groups of enthusiasts and professionals who are trying to figure out what water wants. Why is it important for us to know what water wants?
EG: Water has its own agency and will continue to seek its own path. Studying historical ecology – what water did in a place before we subverted it – provides important information about what it is likely to continue to do, such as regularly return to a floodplain, even if we’ve put buildings there.
By mapping these habits, we can prioritize areas to return to water, when possible, easing local flooding and scarcity nearby. The dominant culture also tends toward single-minded problem solving, but that ignores systems theory and creates unintended consequences. By understanding water’s relationships – with the underground, microbes, beavers, humans – and making space for them, these systems can buffer human habitats and also better maintain themselves.
GLN: We have a long history of trying to control water, to channel it away from its natural path to meet a human want. Chicago, for example, reversed the flow of its river to send its waste elsewhere. We divert water to places that are exhausting their supply. We argue in courts over who has a right to it. That’s the entrenched mindset. Will it continue into the future?
EG: I hope not, because every day there’s more news about how these approaches are failing. Lake Mead emptying. Towns in England and Germany are flooding. These experiences are making people understand viscerally that climate change is water change. Warmer air holds more vapor, pulling more water out of plants and soil and intensifying droughts, and dumping larger quantities of rain elsewhere. But it’s not just climate change.
Our development choices – concrete water infrastructure, paved cities that have doubled in area since 1992, industrial agriculture – make us brittle. We’ve erased natural buffers. The people in my book have made a fundamental shift in how they relate to water and are doing really innovative things. Their efforts are gaining momentum as people see these projects succeeding and are slowly becoming a bigger part of the discussion in cities and rural landscapes around the world – but the control mindset still dominates.
GLN: A few years ago, water levels in the Great Lakes were at record highs. Homes overlooking Lake Michigan collapsed due to wave erosion. Waves were lapping at the doors of condominiums in Chicago. What’s your advice to the people on the shores of Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes who are trying to cope? To maintain their place on treasured shores?
EG: I’m aware of the Great Lakes’ tendency to rise and fall, and that this most recent rise was extreme. We will be more resilient if we make space for water’s ebb and flow.
Rather, we could accept that riverbanks and shorelines don’t belong to us. They are in constant flux, shared with us in phases. We can use those spaces as a commons, sharing them with other people, with water processes, with myriad other forms of life.
And it’s not just the space that is a buffer; it’s also the salt marsh, wetlands, mangroves, ecosystems, river estuaries, depending on the place, that build land, buffer and absorb wave energy. In letting go, in providing space, we acknowledge the power of water-lands—to hold water, to hold carbon, to hold life, including us.
GLN: You introduce the concept of Slow Water and equate it to the Slow Food movement of the 1990s that was “in opposition to fast food and all its ills.” What is Slow Water and why is it relevant now?
EG: Like Slow Food, the Slow Water movement draws attention to how our interactions with water affect people and the environment. Ideally Slow Water is also local and unique to place, working with the local geology, life, climate and culture rather than trying to control them. It’s also distributed across a landscape, making space for water throughout the watershed, rather than a centralized system like a reservoir behind a dam.
It’s akin to the way that solar panels on everyone’s roof adds up to a significant amount of electricity. That distributed nature means that more people are likely to come in contact with it. Historically in many places, people were intimately involved with tending water systems. We may not return to that degree of involvement in, say, a city, but making water more visible educates people about its role in a particular place and tends to get people invested. So there’s a community aspect to Slow Water too.
GLN: You live in California, a state in the midst of droughts and water shortages. The Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec have an abundance of water. International water expert Maude Barlow recently said she expects water-needy areas to eventually look to the Great Lakes. Should our water wealth be shared with western states? Or should it be incumbent on each state or region to live within its own water resources?
EG: I agree with Maude Barlow that each place needs to learn to live within its water means to a much greater extent. The way water is allocated and managed in the West has a lot of room for conservation, including shifting to uses that better benefit the commons rather than enriching the few.
Long-distance water transfers harm donor ecosystems by depleting their water and can introduce invasive species to the receiving ecosystems. Importantly, they don’t solve the problem. They impart a false sense of water abundance, leading to burgeoning populations and new uses that suck up all the new water and restart the cycle of scarcity.
An emerging field of socio-hydrology looks into this phenomenon, which I cover in my book. It’s also an environmental justice issue for people. A study looked at 40 years of dams and other interventions on rivers worldwide and found that 20% of the global population gained water from such interventions, but 24% lost water. A better outcome would be people conserving much more and tailoring uses to the water available, such as growing grape varieties that can be dry farmed. Another option would be more people and industries moving to places that are water rich.
GLN: The importance of groundwater is often mentioned in your book, and you talked about the “willful blindness” it received from regulators in California. In Michigan, regulators have seemingly turned a blind eye to the perils of withdrawing groundwater by bottled water companies. Why do we struggle to understand and protect groundwater?
EG: I think it’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue. But 96% of all liquid freshwater on earth is underground, and it’s connected to surface water.
Where groundwater systems are healthy, they supply surface water. And when we deplete groundwater, surface water filters down into aquifers, depleting the flows we see. But hopefully that’s beginning to change. A hydrogeologist in my book explains how the events that formed the geology of the underground can make it predictable, so we know where to find, say, a paleo valley that can quickly whisk floodwaters underground to prevent damage and save it for droughts. Scientists are also using tools such as airborne electromagnetic imaging to peer beneath the surface and create 3-D maps of the hidden layers.
GLN: Water Always Wins contains references to the legendary Wisconsin conservationist, Aldo Leopold, who talked about our privileges and obligations related to our interaction with the natural world. Why was it important to refer to Leopold’s work?
EG: The value of reciprocity that Leopold espoused – giving and receiving; privileges and obligations – is shared by many Indigenous cultures around the world.
The dominant culture has taken an extractive approach to natural resources, including water. It’s based upon ideology that nature exists for our use; therefore, our needs are more important than those of other beings. But that approach is sickening the systems upon which we depend. Putting ourselves first isn’t working.
On the other hand, if you look at cultures who have managed to work with nature to benefit from flooding or to save water from a short wet season to last themselves throughout the year, they understand that with rights to use water comes responsibility. In caring for water and facilitating its relationships throughout natural systems, we allow water to hydrate plants, making them less likely to burn; feed fish and all other aquatic life so they have less need for dedicated flows; absorb floods; store water for later; clean pollutants out of water.
GLN: Another Wisconsin environmental legend is former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. You quote Nelson saying “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.” Can you expand on Nelson’s statement?
EG: Nelson was highlighting core fallacies in our dominant economic system, global capitalism. A recurrent argument in political discourse is that we can’t protect the environment because it will cost too many jobs, or because, say, growing giant quantities of corn for ethanol and high fructose corn syrup that requires heavy water and fertilizer inputs is more important than preventing the dead zone it causes in the Gulf of Mexico.
But our economic system is largely based on extraction of natural resources – so without the environment, there is no economy. And there’s a fatal flaw in the goal of eternal growth: those natural resources are finite. Proponents of the current system say that when a natural resource is exhausted, the market will innovate something else. But extracting something to the point of economic extinction is diametrically opposed to sustainable use.
Capitalism also takes for granted the services natural systems provide for us, such as water cleaning and storage, oxygen and rain production, cooling, storm protection, food pollination and much more. In the dominant economic system, these services are free or nearly so. And the cost for their loss is typically paid not by the people making money off their damage but by the natural world and the public, especially disadvantaged people.
Nature’s ability to give freely — with little support or protection — is nearing an end. As ecosystems break down, their services do too.
GLN: After extensive research and travel for Water Always Wins, are you optimistic that we’re on a path to make peace with water?
EG: That’s a tough question. I met many people around the world who are working hard toward restoring or incorporating natural water systems into the human relationship with water. Blue/green infrastructure and nature-based solutions are definitely becoming more widely known and discussed.
But I think most people still think of these approaches as a nice feature, like daylighting a few hundred feet of creek in a town as a local attraction, rather than a significant solution to our water woes. That level of interest is reflected in the investment: nature-based solutions currently account for just 3% of global climate funding. But scale is critical – and obvious – if you think about the space water once held across our landscapes.
The most recent IPCC report said we need “transformational changes” in how we do everything, including water. Transformational changes mean we need to fundamentally change that extractive, unlimited growth mentality. Some people in my book are attempting these changes at scale, like national policies in Peru, Kenya, and China, for example, or state policies in California. It’s still early days.
But I’ve been covering water for more than 15 years, and I do see a significant change in the dialogue.
Correction: A previous version of the Q&A quoted the IPCC report incorrectly.
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Featured image: Photo of Erica Gies courtesy of Jill Beale