Water Always Wins
Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge
Water Always Wins
Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge
Nearly every human endeavor on the planet was conceived and constructed with a relatively stable climate in mind. But as new climate disasters remind us every day, our world is not stable—and it is changing in ways that expose the deep dysfunction of our relationship with water. Increasingly severe and frequent floods and droughts inevitably spur calls for higher levees, bigger drains, and longer aqueducts. But as we grapple with extreme weather, a hard truth is emerging: our development, including concrete infrastructure designed to control water, is actually exacerbating our problems. Because sooner or later, water always wins.
In this quietly radical book, science journalist Erica Gies introduces us to innovators in what she calls the Slow Water movement who start by asking a revolutionary question: What does water want? Using close observation, historical research, and cutting-edge science, these experts in hydrology, restoration ecology, engineering, and urban planning are already transforming our relationship with water.
Modern civilizations tend to speed water away, erasing its slow phases on the land. Gies reminds us that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth: the slow phases absorb floods, store water for droughts, and feed natural systems. Figuring out what water wants—and accommodating its desires within our human landscapes—is now a crucial survival strategy. By putting these new approaches to the test, innovators in the Slow Water movement are reshaping the future.
“Gies argues sensitively, knowledgeably and persuasively for our reinvestment in her ‘Slow Water’ techniques. She recognizes that this will ‘require an attitude adjustment in the way we think about this vital compound, from commodity or industrial input to partner, friend, relative, life.’ Ultimately we need to ‘let water be water,’ because ‘control, as it turns out, is illusory.’”
Times Literary Supplement
"A gripping investigation into water and the champion sleuths who research it and engage in daunting yet necessary efforts to restore health to a damaged planet. . . . Considering exploding populations, water inequality, and ever-increasing climate crises, Gies persuasively argues that much must and can be done to improve our understanding of and relationship with water."
"Vibrant. . . . An inspiring, insightful book about the myriad ways that 'water detectives' are helping water to heal the planet."
“Gies takes readers on a global journey, highlighting researchers and engineers who ‘share an openness to moving from a control mindset to one of respect,’ and seek to support what she calls a ‘Slow Water’ movement. ‘While Slow Water projects reduce the risk of floods and water scarcity and the subsequent anxiety those situations bring,’ she writes, ‘they are simultaneously creating more dynamic, diverse, enticing habitats for us.’”
“A fascinating look at the consequences of our attempts to control water in an age of climate instability. Whether we dam, divert, or concrete it over, from the California’s Central Valley to Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes, the results are the same: too much water where we don’t want it, not nearly enough where it is needed. Gies makes a persuasive case that to preserve ourselves, we need to consider what water wants.”
“The world got a reminder of the beauty and importance of going slowly with the advent of the Slow Food movement. . . . Although the concept of slow water hasn’t achieved the same international recognition just yet, Gies explains why it can help us tackle our climate, water, and biodiversity crises.”
"No force of nature has more powerfully shaped the human adventure than water, for the obvious reason that we can’t live without it. Much of what we call civilization has entailed civilizing this substance—mostly by hemming it in. In this sparkling, flowing, world-spanning narrative, Gies compellingly shows why water will always win in the end, particularly in an urbanizing world facing disruptive climate change. She also reveals, through guides ranging from China's 'sponge city' designers to beavers, how liberating water can liberate us, in turn."
Andrew Revkin, former New York Times reporter and coauthor of The Human Planet
"Water Always Wins reveals the mysteries of water’s journey from source to sea and shows how working with nature can help save us from the ravages of climate change. Through fascinating stories and detailed research, Gies challenges modern societies to relinquish some control and let water go where it wants to go. This eye-opening book is filled with brilliant insights, creativity, inspiration, and honest hope."
Sandra Postel, winner of the 2021 Stockholm Water Prize and author of Replenish
"We've tried, in every way we know, to control and contain water on this planet. But there are limits to our power, which become clearer as escalating cycles of flooding and drought increasingly make a mockery of our efforts. As Gies ably demonstrates, the time has come to learn some lessons from liquid and start trying to live gracefully in our wonderfully aqueous world."
Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
"From California's agricultural lands to the marshes of Iraq, from beavers to microinvertebrates, from early water cultures in India and Peru to today’s water crises and the challenges of climate change, Gies uses her formidable reporting skills and personal experiences to weave together beautiful stories about water, its impact on our lives, and how it’s long past time to repair our relationship with this most precious resource."
Peter H. Gleick, founder, Pacific Institute
"In a world awash with water stress, Gies and the many people featured in her pages are leading the way to a future where people might live in a sustainable relationship with the element that sustains us all. It is entertaining, engaging, and applicable nearly everywhere in the world—every reader will find connections to their home communities here."
Peter K. Brewitt, Wofford College
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Descending into Chaos
Chapter 2. Water in Geologic Time: How Ancient Rivers Can Help Ease Droughts
Chapter 3. From Megadams to Microbes: Water’s Relationship with Tiny Forms of Life
Chapter 4. Beavers: The Original Water Engineers
Chapter 5. Reclaiming Historic Water Knowledge in Modern India
Chapter 6. Planting Water: How Water Shaped Culture in Ancient Peru
Chapter 7. Let Floodplains Be Floodplains: Antidote to the Industrial Era
Chapter 8. For Future Humans: Protecting Water Towers in Kenya
Chapter 9. Sedimental Journey: Where Fresh Water Meets Salt
Chapter 10. Our Shared Future: Living with Water
“Do you notice anything?” he asks me.
I brake too and look around, flummoxed. I lived in this city for seventeen years and have been to this park countless times. Everything seems ordinary. On the paved path at our feet, Pomerantz points to an oblong puddle, which I would assume was left over from the last sprinkler watering.
“That?!” I ask, incredulous.
“Look closer,” he says, pointing to its ring of mossy scum. “That’s a sign that this water is nearly always here.” This diminutive puddle, which I have likely passed without noticing many times, is actually evidence of natural springs beneath the park that seep continually, he tells me. It’s a small sign of water’s hidden life, the actions this life-sustaining compound continues to pursue, despite our illusion that we control it. As climate change amplifies floods and droughts, people like Pomerantz are recognizing the importance of such minutiae that highlight water’s agency.
In his free time, Pomerantz hunts and maps ghost streams, the creeks and rivers that once snaked across the San Francisco Peninsula before humans filled them with dirt and trash or holstered them into pipes, then erected roads and buildings atop them. Such treatment of waterways has become standard practices in cities, where more than half of us live worldwide. Pomerantz has devoted three decades to exploring the city with water on his mind, making him a kind of water detective. His eyes see what others miss— like this puddle, or certain water-loving plants that are clues to lost creeks. He gestures toward the trees that line the park’s edge on Fulton Street. “Willows are like a flag,” he says. In fact, the name of this park is actually a plant clue: álamo means “poplar” in Spanish, a species related to willows and other streamside trees.
A few blocks away, he checks for traffic, then guides me to a manhole in the middle of residential Eddy Street near busy Divisadero. Cocking our heads, we hear the sound of rushing water. When that sound is constant, he says, especially in the middle of the night, it’s a creek imprisoned in a sewer pipe, not somebody flushing.
Later, Pomerantz and I bike to Duboce Triangle, another small park, this one between the Lower Haight and Castro Districts. Duboce lies at a low point of The Wiggle, San Francisco’s famous bike path. Although unmarked for many years, bikers long followed this route, weaving through valleys at the base of hills. A stream, now buried, was the original traveler of The Wiggle, and along its path through Duboce Triangle the city has now built bioswales, vegetated ditches to hold runoff from heavy rains. Although I’ve biked the route myself frequently, I never knew it was pioneered by a stream. It makes sense, when you think about it. Cyclists, like water, look for the path of least resistance.
Pomerantz— who has published a map of San Francisco’s lost waterways on his Seep City website, advised local agencies as a consultant, and leads walking tours to share his hard-won knowledge— is not alone in his obsession. In Brooklyn, urban planner Eymund Diegel has mapped Gowanus Creek’s lost watershed. In Victoria, British Columbia, artist, poet, and environmental activist Dorothy Field worked with local historians and First Nations to track the hidden path of Rock Bay Creek, then installed signs and street medians inlaid with salmon mosaics to draw attention to where it still flows underground. As curiosity about buried waterways grows in the popular imagination, the quirky passion is now a global phenomenon. Subterranean explorers, featured in a 2012 film called Lost Rivers, are discovering buried rivers encased in pipes below Toronto, Montreal, and Brescia, Italy. The Museum of London had a Secret Rivers exhibition in 2019 to reacquaint Londoners with their lost streams.
Secret rivers, ghost streams, hidden creeks: learning of their existence arouses our innate attraction to mystery and our passion about the places we live. What we learn about the past triggers amazement because our quotidian landscape is so transformed. We’ve dramatically altered waterways outside of cities too. We’ve straightened rivers’ meanders for shipping, uncurled creeks to speed water away, drained and filled wetlands and lakes, and blocked off floodplains to create more farmland or real estate for buildings.
But our curiosity about water’s true nature is not idle, nor an indulgent wish to return to the past. Water seems malleable, cooperative, willing to flow where we direct it. But as our development expands and as the climate changes, water is increasingly swamping our cities or dropping to unreachable depths below our farms, generally making life—ours and other species’— precarious. Signs of water’s persistence abound if we train ourselves to notice them. Supposedly vanquished waterways pop up stubbornly, in inconvenient ways. In Toronto, tilted houses on Shaw Street near the Christie Pits neighborhood were long a local novelty, but most people didn’t know that the ghost of Garrison Creek was pulling them out of plumb. Worldwide, seasonal creeks emerging in basements are evidence that those houses encroach on buried streams. In my partner’s mom’s neighborhood in suburban Boston, all the houses come with sump pumps because the development was built on the local “Great Swamp.” And in the wreckage of disasters like Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Harvey, we see that homes built atop wetlands are the first to flood.
When our attempts to control water fail, we are reminded that water has its own agenda, a life of its own. Water finds its own path through a landscape, molding it and being directed in turn. It has relationships with rocks and soil, plants and animals, from microbes to mammals like beavers and humans. Today, water is revealing its true nature increasingly often, as climate change brings more frequent and severe droughts and floods. To reduce the impacts of these phenomena, water detectives—Pomerantz and other ghost-stream enthusiasts, restoration ecologists, hydrogeologists, biologists, anthropologists, urban planners, landscape architects, and engineers— are now asking a critical question: What does water want?