A Highly Readable Discussion of Water Issues

Published May 16, 2017

Review of High and Dry: Meeting the Challenges of the World’s Growing Dependence on Groundwater, by William M. Alley and Rosemarie Alley (Yale University Press), February 21, 2017, 304 pages, ISBN-10: 0300220383, ISBN-13: 978-0300220384; $23.17 Amazon.com

You are about to read an incredibly positive review of a truly amazing book, so for balance, I will get my negative comments out of the way first.

First, the title, High and Dry: Meeting the Challenges of the World’s Growing Dependence on Groundwater, is alarmist, though the book is not—probably the work of the publisher wanting to sell more books. Second, after 246 outstanding pages of science and history, the authors show themselves to be climate change alarmists. Unfortunately, a career in government can cause that.

The authors of the book are William and Rosemarie Alley. William is the former chief of the Office of Groundwater for the U.S. Geological Survey. His wife, Rosemarie, is an accomplished science writer. As I received the nation’s first Ph.D. in groundwater hydrology and authored some of the earliest books on the subject, I was excited to get my hands on a contemporary discussion of the topic by these two important authors.

High and Dry is an outstanding compilation of the discipline’s history, along with precise explanations of technological advances. I believe any school that teaches groundwater hydrology should base an entire course on this book.

The authors provide case studies of water problems in Australia, Canada, China, India, sub-Saharan Africa, and the United States, including stories of people who are solving water problems regionally and around the world.

Among the topics the authors address are water shortages, ownership debates, contamination problems, well-construction techniques, artificial recharge projects, and the impacts of shale-gas development. Each story reads like a novel, making the book very easy to read.

State Water Fights

The Alleys open by describing the ongoing battle between the states of Florida and Georgia over water stored in Lake Lanier during dry years. The book then moves on to a discussion of the most famous aquifer in the United States, the Ogallala, which runs through the nation’s midsection, and the authors explain the use of tandem satellites to measure groundwater volumes and variations in the aquifer.

The authors describe the 40-year battle between Arizona and California over the Colorado River. Although the Colorado River is only the sixth-largest river in the United States, the water from it is far and away the most litigated over. Conflicts over the water in the Colorado River began even before the federal government built its largest-ever public works project along it: the Central Arizona Project, which carries water 300 miles south and  uses 14 pumping stations to lift water up 3,000 feet over the area’s mountains.

Pipelines, Species, and Salt

The Alleys accurately describe the massive underground pipelines used to transport groundwater across Libya, the complex groundwater irrigation systems in Saudi Arabia, and how the government controls water drawn from Texas’ mammoth Edwards aquifer to save endangered fish species dependent on a few springs fed by the aquifer, instead of serving the needs of the growing human population in the region.

The Alleys describe critical efforts to keep salty ocean water from traveling underground inland while people lower water levels in groundwater wells near the coasts. This leads to a discussion of California’s massive groundwater storage, recycling, and recharge system, the Groundwater Replenishment System.

Although the book has very few illustrations, one, situated in the authors’ discussion of land subsidence, is priceless. The picture shows a 36-foot-tall telephone pole marked with the levels of the land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977 near Mendota, California. The land has subsided dramatically, as the marks on the pole show, due to heavy pumping of groundwater in the area. As the Alleys note, subsidence in Mendota is dwarfed by the subsidence Mexico City has experienced over the past century.

Of great interest to all readers will be an excellent explanation of why hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for shale gas do not normally pose a threat to groundwater or drinking-water supplies.

This wonderful book combines the information contained in a nonfiction technical book with the readability of a novel and is likely to keep the interest of any inquisitive reader.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.