Aqua Shock: The water crisis in America

by Susan J. Marks

Hardcover, 2009

Call number



New York : Bloomberg Press, c2009.


"Aqua Shock takes a realistic look at the water crisis in America, explaining where our water comes from, what's happening to it, and why. It examines complicated water laws, discusses who does and who doesn't own rights to water, and describes how our groundwater becomes polluted. It concludes with what can be done to ease the crisis"--Provided by publisher.


Original language


Original publication date



1576603326 / 9781576603321

Library's review

LibraryThing member lorax
Aqua Shock by Susan Marks is a superficial treatment of water issues in the United States that reads like a collection of Powerpoint presentations for city councilmembers with short attention spans. Having recently read Marc Reisner's classic Cadillac Desert, about the history of water projects and water politics in the American West, I was eager to learn what new developments in water politics had taken place in the fifteen years since the revised edition was released; sadly, I am no closer to knowing that than I was before reading Aqua Shock.

Marks presents each chapter as a loosely connected series of facts, making no attempt at analysis or in-depth investigation. At some times she appears to not even remember what she has presented in earlier chapters, or even to have read her own book -- early on, in a sidebar about the water use required to produce various types of food, she mentions the astonishing 3500 gallons to produce a kilogram of grain-fed beef; yet, when discussing individual water conservation measures, she resorts to the tedious recommendations to "fix leaky faucets" and "don't run the water while brushing your teeth" that we've been hearing for decades (does anyone, anywhere, actually still let the water run while they're brushing their teeth?) without seeming to realize that the savings she quotes from these measures would be dwarfed by a family of four simply cutting out one meal of beef per month. She mentions 6000 gallons of water per year lost to a leaky faucet, and 8 gallons a day (roughly 3000 gallons a year) from toothbrushing with the water running; that's a total of less than three kilograms of grain-fed beef, for the entire year!

While Marks appears to be making an attempt to be even-handed in her discussion of the issues, she omits key perspectives. Perhaps even without realizing it, she subscribes wholeheartedly to the notion excoriated in Cadillac Desert, that any drop of water left to flow unused to the ocean is wasted. Environmental concerns are limited to pollution (and that only in drinking water), and the value of streams as streams is limited to their utility for kayakers. Not once does Marks consider the notion that keeping streams flowing may be ecologically critical, a shocking omission. I lived for most of a decade in southern Arizona, where rare riparian areas were ecologically priceless, and were being devastated by increasing demands on groundwater, risking the survival not only of local species but of migratory ones relying on the riparian corridors -- Marks appears to be unaware of or indifferent to these issues, concerned only with balancing various human demands on the limited groundwater. As far as she is concerned, all water is available for human use with no possible ill effects.

While I will readily admit that, as someone who has actually lived in arid areas for most of my adult life, who actually reads the quarterly water-quality reports from the local utilities, and who has previously read about water and water politics, I'm probably not the target audience for this book, it's unclear to me who might be. The book is so extremely basic (even explaining the water cycle we all learned about in elementary school) and so dryly presented that it's difficult to imagine anyone picking it up purely out of interest and being satisfied, so I can only imagine that it is intended to be used, perhaps, for an undergraduate course on environmental policy with a unit on water, or by local government officials who had never previously considered "water" and "politics" in the same sentence. As a pure recitation of fairly basic facts, Aqua Shock might provide what a reader seeks, but as an interesting or enjoyable read it falls far short. I rank it as high as I do (1.5 stars) only because there don't appear to be any glaring factual errors in the book.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member bfertig
Aqua Shock - Susan Marks

Early Reviewer review.

This book appears to be a rushed attempt to quickly publish a number of facts, statistics, and Internet resources related to various topics concerned with water available for human consumption and a few other uses. It's a complex topic, and unfortunately, the author gets bogged down in minutiae, poorly organizes them, and doesn't synthesize the key concepts. She fails to focus on the biggest water consumption usages (e.g. energy and agriculture production) or make connections between how individuals can impact those usages even if not directly involved in those sectors. Instead, she presents tired old facts associated with personal water conservation that have proven to not be effective at moving us any closer to a solution. She also fails to recognize non-economic or indirect values that water can have - e.g. ecological, food (e.g. fish) and other natural resources (maybe one day algal biofuels), aesthetic, recreational (except kayaking), etc. These major flaws have been described in more detail in other reviews.

There is a distinct lack of narrative, analysis, voice, or even journalistic hook to grab readers' attention. What a shame, since water topics can be wildly interesting, personal, and controversial. This book is 'just the facts, ma'am', and often in bullet point format – a la a dull PowerPoint. The introductory chapter was so bent on cramming factoids in that the first 30 pages turned me off from the book for six months. Only out of sheer guilt and commitment to the Early Reviewers program have I even opened it up again at all. From the second chapter onwards the bullet points were generally reserved for an end-of-chapter review (I assume - it wasn't labeled as such). Additionally, sprinkled throughout there were seemingly random “Water Facts” and sidebar boxes that appeared to me to be extra notes she had made which she didn’t really know where to include. There was even a figure (1.2) that didn’t even have a figure associated.

The utility of this book is somewhat elusive. It certainly doesn’t make for a compelling narrative. If it’s page-turning (I read about half of it last night), for me it was because it wasn’t saying anything new or adding anything to the discussion. Other reviewers have suggested it might be ok for an introductory class. I think it might actually be intended for those with absolutely no background or understanding (or even interest) in where we get water from, how its used/abused, or why it might be controversial. If you have read or heard anything about water in the last twenty years, you can probably skip this book. It’s possible, I suppose, that these facts and numbers may spark interest in someone who has never ever given a second thought about the tap. Possibly, this repository of websites and factoids could be useful for someone who wants to snag a few for a talk or presentation when they are largely unfamiliar with the topic. Or it could be a resource for a school report. But a poor quality school report is pretty much what the book reads like overall.
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LibraryThing member msbaba
Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America, by Susan J. Marks, is a boring hodgepodge of facts and figures. It reads like some of the mind-numbing textbooks that I had to endure during my high school years. This book breathes no life or depth into the topic…and that is very sad because the worldwide water crisis is an immensely fascinating topic. How could the author get so lost in the trees that she misses the forest?

I love this topic. I've spent many months of my retirement years taking college-level seminar courses on the water crisis. I've read a number of major books and countless academic papers and government documents on the topic. I've heard enlightened seminar students deliver stimulating presentations on a wide variety of in-depth worldwide water crisis research studies. I prepared my own report on the water crisis currently facing Australia. So, it was with great interest and enthusiasm that I agreed to read and review Aqua Shock for the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing. What a disappointment!

The water crisis is about as complex as most topics can get. It needs authors that can cut through the minutiae and help readers understand the underlying issues. Instead, Susan Marks writes like a cheerleader-type teacher trying to wake up an early morning class of disinterested ninth-graders. For example, the book begins: "America is running out of water! Sooner rather than later, your tap could run dry." This same introductory chapter closes with these words: "Water is a broad issue and—through the lens of Aqua Shock—anything but dry, so let's get started. " She peppers the book with information about potentially fun, interactive Internet sites that readers can visit to play with water facts. For example, in one paragraph that seemingly comes out of nowhere between two unrelated paragraphs, she says: "The amount of water that falls from the sky in an ordinary rainstorm might surprise you. Learn more about it with the U.S. Geological Survey's interactive calculator... " and here she provides the Internet address. I audible groaned when I read on page 143 that the United States needs "a big kahuna of water" implying that we needed a Cabinet-level national water officer.

The book has glaring factual errors. On page 23 (and repeated again on page 28), she attributes Joseph Dellapenna, internationally known water law expert and professor at Villanova University School of Law as saying this: "While the population of the United States doubled between 1950 and 1980, per capita water consumption increased sixfold during the same period." Now, I don't go around keeping obscure data in my head, but I suspect that most informed readers would immediately know that the population of the United States did not double between 1950 and 1980. It doubled between 1950 and the present day. I doubt the error was Dellapenna's, and it is certainly the type of error that an author or editor should have spotted and corrected. It makes me fear for other glaring errors that may dot this text that I did not spot.

As a retired academic research librarian, I've read countless term papers by college students who have amassed a dozen or so related academic papers on a topic and are attempting to bring them together into a cogent term paper. This book reads exactly like the type of student who misses the point…the type of student who does excellent research, but just can't put it all together into a cogent whole.

Don't read or buy this book; save your time and money. There are far better books on the topic. As a starter, read chapter two, Emerging Water Shortages, in Lester Brown's book Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. The Earth Policy Institute makes this book available free on the Internet, each chapter being a separate, easy-to-read PDF document. Other interesting and insightful overviews are Water, the Fate of our Most Precious Resource, by Marq DeVilliers, and Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner. But above all, do inform yourself about the current worldwide water crisis. It is real and alarming.
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LibraryThing member grizzly.anderson
I'm pretty certain the reason I received this one through ER is because I own and enjoyed Reisner's Cadillac Desert. While that book is 23 years old, with a revision 16 years ago, it remains a much better book on water development and water policy in the US and in the west in particular.

Aqua Shock reads like a high school text book. If you don't mind dry but cheery prose wrapped around innumerable bullet point lists and interesting fact boxes it probably isn't a bad introduction to water issues. Unfortunately I'm a little past the introductory stage, and I'm looking for the author to put together a compelling narrative - even in my non-fiction - not just list of fact after fact after fact. A number of the factoids are deep-links (if something that is text-only can be said to be a link) to web pages, and given the fact that web sites change structure and web pages are ephemeral, I expect that the useful life of may parts of this book will be much less than 25 years.… (more)
LibraryThing member shadowofthewind

It seems like this book is intended to be an academic primer for water issues in the United States. It reads like a reporter attempting to sensationalize an issue. There are far better books addressing water issue. Although many of those books deal with western water issues they offer a far more compelling and interesting story. Cadillac desert, a river no more, and other books tell this story far better. In fact anyone that has taken a sip of tap water in Phoenix understands water salinity issues. Anyone who lives in the San joaquin valley understand the connection between water, environmental issues, and jobs. Aquashock doesn't tell a compelling story. It's just a series of reports for a newspaper.… (more)
LibraryThing member skullfaced
I must say, Aqua Shock lives up to everything it promises. It's highly informative, offers information on just about every aspect of the water crisis in America, and is easy to read. If the book fails to state quickly and effectively the answer to my mother's question, it's because there is no quick and effective answer . Water rights and usage in America are as complex and difficult as you'd expect, but Marks does a good job of trying to sort through the mess.

I only have two problems with Aqua Shock. One is that she sometimes reuses examples. Fairly minor, but did get annoying at one point. The other is, in my opinion, the book's major flaw: it reads like a junior high earth science textbook. There are literally chapter reviews and little asides labeled "Water Tales" and "Water Facts." They come complete with a little graphic. Some of them are in small boxes I'd expect to see in a sidebar somewhere.

All things considered, this is a good, solid book. If it's not "ripping" or "engaging" that's because the topic in and of itself is not considered such. But the book succeeds very well in being an easily accessible primer to the water crisis in America.
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LibraryThing member firstcitybook
Susan J. Marks’ Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America certainly addresses an important topic, one that has been receiving attention in the Great Plains for at least the past fifteen to twenty years and one that has recently been receiving attention nationwide. The book itself presents the information about this dwindling resource but largely seems to be a compendium of what can be found on the Internet about the topic. One thing the book lacks is a strong narrative. It isn’t necessary to include anecdotes from the author’s experience, but as a reader I would like to see the author relating her impressions and observations as she travels to some of the locations representative of the water crisis in this country. The inclusion of bulleted information quickly becomes tiring and frustrating. In including quotations from various authorities, Marks gives the impression of having interviewed people like “Bill Waldrop, a Tennessee-based hydrologist who has been studying water and environmental quality issues since the early 1970’s” or “Hugh Hurlow, senior geologist for the Utah Geological Survey.” The Chapter Notes, however, don’t reference these interviews and are simply a list of Internet sites, which causes me to believe that Marks has pulled these quotes from those links without having picked up the phone or having made a trip away from her computer. I have to wonder, too, what audience Marks is addressing. Early in the book, she defines words like aquifer as “underground water supplies,” peninsula, “meaning that it is surrounded on three sides by water,” and brackish, “salty,” but doesn’t define a word like desalination, which I suspect needs to be defined if the intended audience isn’t familiar with a word as common as peninsula. Perhaps Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America is meant only for libraries so that someone needing the research can pull information from one or two chapters to satisfy a school assignment.… (more)
LibraryThing member tag100
While the information in this book is interesting, the presentation is repetitive to the point of annoyance. It almost seems that this was written as a series of high-school term papers.
LibraryThing member nmulvany
The author’s background in journalism is apparent. This book has been meticulously researched. Text within chapters is peppered with chapter endnote numbers. Many experts were interviewed and sources of data are clearly indicated. Susan Marks covers a wide variety of water issues: scarcity of water, where water comes from, safety issues, water laws, control of water, cost of water, and the future of water. She discusses groundwater, aquifers, surface water, contamination of water, transfer of water, weather, climate, bottled water, and much more.

Having lived most of my adult life in northern California, I first experienced water rationing in the 1970s (“if it’s yellow, it’s mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down”). Water issues have been of more than a passing interest of mine. At times while reading Aqua Shock I felt bombarded by statistics and data. I wanted to say “Enough! I get it!” That said, there are plenty of people who have no idea that we are facing huge challenges regarding water quality and supply. Unfortunately most people are not able to describe their own watershed. Those are the readers who will benefit from this book.

Some of the data presented is dull, while some is brilliant. For example, on page 17 there is a figure titled “How Much Does It Take?” (volume of water to produce 2.2 pounds of food): Wheat 260-520 gallons, Other grain 260-780 gallons, Grain-fed beef 3,380-3,900 gallons. Marks’ chapter about water law is particularly good for those who need an introduction to this contentious and convoluted body of law. This book would be a great resource in a high school or college freshman course about natural resources/ecology.

The global water crisis is upon us. How it will be addressed remains to be seen. The first step is to recognize that water problems exist. Aqua Shock is for readers who think their water comes from a faucet. Given the volume of references within this book, it provides many opportunities for readers to explore topics in more depth. If you are totally unfamiliar with water issues, first rent a copy of Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown, then read this book.
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LibraryThing member kbondelli
Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America by Susan J. Marks provides an analysis of the emerging water crisis in America by looking at its causes, governing structures, and potential solutions.

The United States uses approximately 408 billion gallons of water every day, 345 billion gallons of that usage being freshwater. The largest usage of water in the United States by far — 195.5 billion gallons — is for energy production. When most people think about water they tend to focus solely on drinking water and household usage, yet domestic use ranks a distant third behind agriculture with 46.9 billion gallons per day. Water is used in every aspect of our civilization and is a critical component of every supply chain. Droughts have an enormous economic impact on the country, costing between $6-8 billion annually in losses.

Dr. Peter Gleick sums up the global water crisis:

"The easiest way to describe the world water problem is that a billion people don’t have access to safe drinking, and 2.5 billion don’t have access to adequate sanitation services, which leads to 2 million or so preventable deaths every year from water-related diseases."

Most people know that the amount of water on Earth does not change. However, water’s movement, form, purity, and pollution sources are all dynamic. One of the major causes of the change of these qualities is climate change. Increased global temperatures have reduced snowfall in many mountain areas of the United States, with melting snowpack being the main resource for summer water. Climate change also affects storm frequency, intensity, and drought.

According to Joseph Dellapenna of Villanova University “the root of the water crisis historically is not so much population growth but change in the way we use water, change in per-capita water demand.” The Clean Water Act was able to actually decrease the gallons of water used per person per day from 1980-2000 by limiting water discharge for industries and power plants, causing these industries to research and implement new ways to reuse water. The success of the Clean Water Act shows that good legislation and smart planning can go a long way in improving America’s water situation.

Unfortunately, our water infrastructure and urban planning have been contributing to the problem instead of improving our efficiency. Most of the water infrastructure in the United States is antiquated: storm sewers and drainage systems leak large amounts of freshwater, paving large areas in cities and suburbs prevents water from soaking back into the ground to replenish aquifers, and leaky pipes waste 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. Poor planning has caused even areas with high precipitation to have water shortages because of these factors.

Water infrastructure development and maintenance has been at a stand-still since the 1980s. The country has not built a major water storage system since Reagan was President, and our dams, aqueducts, and storage systems were designed for a different climate than we currently experience. Old pipes can allow contaminants into the water supply, and while water treatment facilities are normally able to kill bacteria and parasites, these antiquated systems are not well-enough equipped to deal with modern pollutants: pesticides, industrial chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. The NRDC estimates that more than 7 million Americans get sick from contaminated water annually.

People tend to turn to bottled water as an alternative to tap, believing that it makes them safer. Unfortunately this is both not the case and leads to the usage of even more water. Bottled water isn’t safety tested as often as tap water, and most bottled water is from taps and public reservoirs anyway. The real problem is that the amount of water used to make the plastic bottles and in the gasoline fuel to transport those bottles. Instead of demanding we improve our water infrastructure, people purchase bottled water which actually causes greater depletion of our water reserves.

Improving our water infrastructure and urban design would go a long way into securing our water supplies through the 21st century. Porous pavement, water-friendly landscaping, rain gardens, and vegetated swales would help rain water soak into the ground to replenish aquifers. Reducing nonpoint source pollution, which is recognized as the primary threat to American water quality, would prevent fresh water from being ruined. Fixing those leaky pipes and leaching storage systems would prevent the waste of billions of gallons of water.

This has become a problem that we as a country have put off until tomorrow, and today we are faced with expensive repairs that scare politicians. Cost estimates for the replacement of drinking and wastewater infrastructure range from $485 billion to $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. So far the United States has only allocated $945 million for such projects, which was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earlier this year. From any estimate that only covers a sliver of the necessary repair.

According to Marks, “the biggest obstacle to solving the nation’s water problems is refusing to admit they exist.”

Aqua Shock also includes some informative chapters about water laws, the people who control water, the cost of water, and whether our water can be saved. The book definitely does its job in informing the reader about our water problems and water policy, and would be valuable to anyone that is interested in conserving resources and developing our country’s infrastructure for the 21st century.
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LibraryThing member stretch
The water shortage in America and around the world is an important subject that needs to be explored.

Aqua Shock does admirable job as an introduction to the water crisis here in America, in fact it reads almost like an introductory textbook. There are lots of figures and tidbits to supplement the text which is nice. I found it most helpful to read a updates on a lot of the cases that are currently pending throughout the United States. I could do without the unwarranted hysteria that naturally comes with environmental book, but if it gets people thinking and reading more about the topic I figure it's not all bad.… (more)
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