inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #51 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 1 Oct 05 17:32
It's not so much that the Bank is averse to using them as it is that many
are too small-scale, for reasons I've described back in #17, to appeal to
the Bank. The Bank is certainly enthusiastic about the suite of high-tech
techniques that Don Blackmore's Murray-Darling Basin Commission developed in
Australia, including salt-disposal basins and computer modeling of river
flow. And these, of course, are entirely compatible with dams. But low-tech
solutions, including rainwater harvesting, don't interest the Bank at all,
as far as I know.

One interesting group on water technology is International Development
Enterprises of Lakewood, CO. IDE is a nonprofit that develops low-tech
technologies to be sold and marketed by for-profit companies in developing
countries. The technologies are designed to address the poorest of farmers,
and have included human-powered treadle pumps, (really) cheap drip
irrigation, and the equivalent of big plastic bags that can be buried and
used to store water for the dry season. The founder, Paul Polak, is a
psychiatrist who got tired of addressing humanity's problems in a small way,
and developed IDE through thousands of conversations with poor farmers
around the world. He and his staff figured out ways to make cheaply things
that these farmers can really benefit from, and millions of his tools have
been sold. It seems to me that his approach is almost the reverse of the
Bank's. (You can check out IDE's website at
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #52 of 86: Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Sun 2 Oct 05 08:08
Maybe if they opt to drain the Hetch-Hetchy, they can just leave the
dam in place, drill the appropriate sized channels through it, and use
the rest as a structure for a really innovative set of hotels and other
recreational and administrative offices. ;-)
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #53 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sun 2 Oct 05 08:28
Sensory derprivation tanks might work.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #54 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sun 2 Oct 05 10:39
Jacques, you were able to take on one of the big themes, man versus
nature, with great style and effectivenesss. Would you talk some about
the writing process in general; the strengths non-narrative fiction
brings to this subject, some of the difficulties involved in framing
the subject and anything else you thing is pertinent?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #55 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sun 2 Oct 05 18:49
I wrote about some of this stuff in the spring 2005 issue of Nieman Reports
(for anyone interested, go to, then click
on story entitled "Using Narrative to Tell Stories About Water" for a pdf
file), but I'm happy to take another crack at this.

Not too long ago I heard Tom Waits say on the radio that he is drawn to
beautiful melodies that tell terrible stories. I realized that goes for me,
too. In the writing I most admire, beauty and horror (or suffering, or
tragedy)  are entirely intertwined and more truthful than any variation that
leaves one out. From the time I recognized such writing, in college and
after, in the works of George Orwell, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Primo Levi
and many, many others, I harbored the notion of emulating them, and have
come closest, I think, in Deep Water.

Writing narrative nonfiction is always a gamble. I spent an extended length
of time with each of the book's three principal characters, and counted on
shaping the three narratives out of whatever events ensued during my visits,
yet I could never be sure whether the experiences would deliver any drama.
True, I tried to time my trips to increase the odds, by going to see Medha
Patkar as she prepared to try to drown herself, for example, or by visiting
Don Blackmore as he prepared for an important Murray-Darling Basin
Commission meeting. But these ploys couldn't be counted on— reality is far
too complicated for that.

The India trip seemed to unfold in front of me almost cinematically: I soon
as I saw an event or sometimes merely conducted an interview there, I knew
exactly where (or if) it belonged in the narrative. After it, I naively
entertained the notion that all I had to do was show up, and some
spectacular saga would proceed to unfold. Africa and Australia disabused me
of that notion, but in the process showed me that my conception of the
stories had been too narrow: landscapes, in particularly but not exclusively
the dams themselves, were nearly as important in the narratives as its three
main characters.

I've written my share of long expository pieces, attempts to convey
information as economically as possible, points a through z, but in my
experience narrative writing is more powerful. It starts with people, and
then it moves, and the necessary information about the issues is wrapped
around the action, in the same way that we absorb information in our day-to-
day lives. Unlike other forms of nonfiction, it makes room for imagery and
art. I find foreign reporting gratifying in all sorts of ways, but it is
when I've reached the keyboard and can start writing the story that I
usually feel happiest. I don't mean that I don't go through the usual ups
and downs that writers experience— I do— but I take most pleasure in the
writing. This kind of writing for me is, after all, a performance art,
different from, say, music or dancing only because the evidence of the
performance isn't available until after it's finished. I try to put energy
into every sentence. I read them aloud as I write them, and am not satisfied
until they sound right. My wife says I write in iambic pentameter, but I've
never checked.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #56 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sun 2 Oct 05 18:52
And one other thing. Man against nature is assuredly a theme of Deep Water,
but not the main one. As Tom Vanderbilt's wonderful review in the Columbia
Journalism Review showed meâ me, the main theme is human against human. That's
what gives it energy and (I hope) moral force.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #57 of 86: Philippe Habib (phabib) Mon 3 Oct 05 12:01
As a reader I found the technique of using the people to convey the
information difficult at first.  I am more used to dealing with the
economical a-z approach.  Once I got into the book though I found
myself tieing back the people and stories together in a way that I
don't think I would have in a more convential expository style and I
found that real people made me understand the impact of the technology
in ways a description of concerns and side effects would not have done.

Reading this book I wonder if big dam, or maybe I should say giant
dam, building is pretty much over.  I wonder too about alternative
methods catching on.  It seems like people like IDE and others are
pitching better solutions than dams but a dam is a real symbol of
progress and a source of national pride that buried plastic bags just
can't compete with.  Those nations probably want what the big kids
have, not this technology that isn't "good enough" for the
industrialized world.

How do you think all of this plays into dam construction?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #58 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Mon 3 Oct 05 12:25
Philippe, there's certainly some truth to most of what you say. The
exception is your comment about dam building being pretty much over. That's
largely correct in the U.S. and Europe, but elsewhere they're being built,
at a likely rate of something like 2,000 large dams a year. China in
particular is rushing to build dams as fast as it can, regardless of the
huge adverse impacts on the Mekong, Yangtze, Salween, etc. The fact that the
World Bank and the regional development banks also push large dams is highly

Yes, it's true that many people in developing countries derive a sense of
pride from dam construction, but if the pride is misplaced, if the dams
deliver something far different from what's promised, then this strikes me
as no justification for dams.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #59 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Mon 3 Oct 05 18:35
Rather, in many cases it strikes me as a continuation of the colonial
process, by which a substantial portion of colonized people are victimized
while the colonizers and their allies reap benefits. The World Bank's donor
nations get access to resources and markets, and their multinationals carry
out design and construction, while the people who will suffer most from the
dam are still treated as afterthoughts. The chests of these people certainly
do not swell with pride.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #60 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Mon 3 Oct 05 19:12
And let's not forget that while this is going on huge numbers of
people, mostly children, are dying from lack of sanitary water and
health related issues - UN estimates are between 2 and 5 million people
per year. That's just a staggering number.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #61 of 86: Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Tue 4 Oct 05 04:27
I have to wonder, would a vigorous campaign of decomissioning massive
dams in the industrialized world roll back the enthusiasm for big dams
in the developing world? Not that it's very likely to happen...
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #62 of 86: Rip Van Winkle (keta) Tue 4 Oct 05 09:22
Re <255.45> <255.46> - when did wilderness end - I think the answer is
in <255.56>.  If the theme of the book is more properly "human against
human" instead of "man against nature," the theme is still "against". 
I think you can say wilderness ends not when humans arrive, begin to
participate and manipulate, but when they shift from "with" to

I like the image of a future including big dams with holes in them,
crumbling magnificently.  For some reason I had assumed that a
decommissioned dam had to be totally removed.  What would you do with a
large earthen dam? 
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #63 of 86: Philippe Habib (phabib) Tue 4 Oct 05 10:11
I think 59 totally nails it.  The World Bank is in business to lend
huge sums of money, the real beneficiaries of this money are not the
developing countries that have to pay it back when nothing fundemental
has been changed in the country or its economy to allow them to pay it
back, but rather the large companies that take that money back to the
industrialized countries that lent it in the first place.

I think these people are being sold a lie, "build a massive project
like what we have and you'll become just like us." when the rest of the
country isn't at a point to really need that massive project and can't
really support it.

What part do you see the world bank and its influence and policies
playing in the 3 countries you've used as examples in your book?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #64 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Tue 4 Oct 05 10:42
#61 I think that if the U.S. and other developed countries launched a
vigorous, well-publicized campaign to decommission dams, it would cause some
reconsideration among developing countries, and would certainly make it
easier for anti-dam people to make their views known. (Similarly, if the
U.S. were to announce a new policy of rigorous adherence to Kyoto Protocol
standards, developing countries at the very least would find it harder to
explain why they, too, weren't embracing anti-global warming policies.)

#62 All I can say is that earthen dams can be decommissioned just as arched
cement dams can. To answer how, I'd have to consult my dam engineer

#63 The Bank is a major lender in both India and the countries of southern
Africa I wrote about. It obviously isn't in Australia. (Does this answer
your question, or are you asking what I think the Bank's policies _should_
be in these countries?)
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #65 of 86: Philippe Habib (phabib) Tue 4 Oct 05 15:04
I guess what I was wondering about was who iniated these projects. 
Did the countries say "We want a dam, let's go talk to the world bank"
or did the world bank go to the countries and say "We can help you
modernize, let's talk about building a dam"
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #66 of 86: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 4 Oct 05 19:21

Jacques, there's something that's puzzling me …

Large dams have proven to come with some substantial negative side effects,
from loss of habitat for wildlife both upstream and down to the displacement
of indigenous peoples. Decommissioning these dams would ultimately bring the
return of habitat for at least some of the wildlife.

However, at what cost to some of our largest concentrations of humans?

How do we supply water to the vast populations we have in big city areas
without these big dams? If Hetch Hetchy was decommissioned, where would the
water supply come from to support the enormous population of the greater San
Francisco Bay Area?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #67 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Tue 4 Oct 05 20:39
Re #65, dams take so long to get started that I think it would be pretty
hard to establish who initiates the process, with industry, government, and
international donors all intertwined. I've just been thinking about the dams
with World Bank involvement that I wrote about, and all were the subjects of
proposals for years before the projects got started. In India, proposals to
build a dam on the Narmada River existed in the 1950s, and may have even
preceded Indian independence, but didn't gain momentum until the three
involved Indian states worked out their respective claims on Narmada water
and resettlement responsibilities. I imagine that the Bank watched these
developments and was happyl to get involved once the project became
feasible. As for the dams in Lesotho, South Africa had long eyed Lesotho as
a source of water, and found support from the Bank despite the anti-
apartheid embargo on trade with South Africa. The impetus for the Kariba dam
came from the copper mines of Northern Rhodesia and budding industrialists
of Southern Rhodesia; again, the Bank was delighted to step in to help.

Re #66, the issue of water shortage and its relation to dams has more to do
with agricultual production than with municipal water supply, though both
are involved. Remember that 70% of water used by humans is for agriculture.
Furthermore, as the price of desalination drops, coastal cities will
probably be able to tap that alternative. It has already dropped
sufficiently that urban water managers in California are now more interested
in building desal plants than new dams; not only are the costs roughly
comparable, but the water is more reliable, since drought is not an issue
with desal. (The problem is greater for inland cities, since the cost of
pumping water from the coast is prohibitively expensive.)

If O'Shaughnessy Dam were decommissioned, it would not be terribly difficult
to come up with alternatives so that San Francisco gets the water it needs.
The Hetch Hetchy reservoir holds a little less than a quarter of the San
Francisco Public Utilities Commission's water supply; the Don Pedro
Reservoir, which is downstream from O'Shaughnessy on the Tuolumne River,
holds twice as much water as the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and would play a
bigger role in water supply if Hetch Hetchy were eliminated. In
Environmental Defense's proposal, the difference would be made up by
expanding another reservoir, the Calaveras, and adding a pipeline. But these
additions would be necessary to meet needs only in the driest 20% of years;
the rest of the time, the existing facilities would be adequate.

Of course, San Francisco is in much better shape than many other cities,
which is what makes the Hetch Hetchy proposal plausible. But the biggest
concern with water supply around the world is the impact of shortages on
agricultural production. Irrigation now makes possible at least a sixth of
the world's food production, and that sixth will grow increasingly
vulnerable as population expands and groundwater is depleted.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #68 of 86: from RANDY COPLAND (tnf) Wed 5 Oct 05 00:10

Randy Copland writes:


Just a couple of comments...

First, I noticed that you have mentioned a couple of times in these discus-
sions (i.e. #15) that "...San Joaquin Valley farmers pay a tiny fraction of
the real cost of water, which they then use wastefully, among other ways by
growing water-guzzling crops such as rice, which is absurd."

I think that you should check your facts.  There is no rice farming in the
San Joaquin Valley.  Rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley (a region which
typically has an abundance of water).

As for the San Joaquin Valley, this region's economy is almost entirely based
on (and dependent on) irrigated agriculture.  This region is home to a
population of roughly 3.7 million people whose livelihoods would likely not
exist without this "absurd" use of dam-controlled irrigation water.  In
financial terms, this represents about a $60-70 billion/year economy which
would not exist without the foresight of those who built and paid for the
infrastructure to make it happen.

Another main purpose for the construction of the dams in the Central Sierra
Nevada region was flood control.  There were repeated large-scale floods in
Central California before the dams were built on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne,
Merced, San Joaquin, Kings and Kern Rivers.  Without these projects being
operated with flood control in mind, in years like 1968, 1969, and 1983, we
would have seen large numbers of people standing waist-high in water waiting
for billions in public funds to rebuild our homes, businesses, roads, etc. in
a place where there would certainly be another disaster in the future.
(Sounds kinda' like New Orleans doesn't it.)

It seems to me that this (dam building) is exactly the correct way for the
government to spend tax dollars.  I'm sure that these projects have provided
benefits (and prevented loss of life and property) as effectively as any
public-works projects could.

So, (sorry for the rambling) I don't know what the "real cost of water" is,
but I do believe that the vast citizenry of the region has benefited from it
being made available when - and in the quantities it was needed.  This has
not just been a huge subsidy to the evil farming conglomerates.

Thanks for letting me vent.

Randy Copland
(Not a farmer)
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #69 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Wed 5 Oct 05 11:36
Randy, if your post constitutes a vent, it is certainly a gracious one. And
as you point out, I was wrong to cite rice in the San Joaquin Valley. But I
could have made my case by citing such water-guzzling crops as cotton or
alfalfa (since it is typically fed to cows, the most notorious water
guzzlers of all). Neither cotton nor cattle could be supported if San
Joaquin Valley farmers were charged a price for water that begins to
approximate the cost of delivering it to them (though such pricing usually
was promised when the dams were built). To cite the size of the industry
that California's irrigated water has enabled does not strike me as
sufficient to make the case for the industry's value; to do that, it would
be necessary to examine alternative uses for the many billions of dollars
that have been invested in the irrigation infrastructure and to show that
irrigation is superior to the others. It might also be worthwhile to examine
the distribution of income and health conditions among the people who work
in the San Joaquin Valley agriculture industry. I suspect that many of those
working at subsistence wages and without health benefits would not consider
their participation in the industry an unmitigated good.

Also, given the extent of the environmental damage wrought by irrigated
farming in California and the likelihood that many current agricultural
practices are unsustainable, I'd say that it would be hard to make a solid
case for the state's agricultural subsidies. A partial list of environmental
problems includes the destruction of Tulare Lake and countless wetlands and
the consequent decline of migratory birds that depended upon them; severe
groundwater depletion, salt poisoning, and some land subsidence in the San
Joaquin Valley; the devastation of salmon in California rivers blocked by
dams; the decline of San Francisco Bay and saltwater intrusion far up into
the delta; and the concentration of selenium in Kesterson Reservoir from
agricultural runoff.

The case for flood control is at best ambiguous. As an engineer cited in
Jordan Fisher Smith’s “Nature Noir” puts it, there are two kinds of
levees: those that have already failed and those that will. I’m surprised
you mention New Orleans in the context of flood control, since if it
demonstrates anything, it would seem to show the limitations of human
attempts to control large amounts of water. “Flood control” as we
understand it typically wards off small- and medium-sized floods, but not
the biggest ones, which nothing human can stop. Indeed, in some cases, dams
have contributed to flood devastation by holding back water for irrigation
or hydropower in reservoirs when it should have been released to make more
room to store floodwater. The likelihood that global warming is undermining
the hydrological assumptions upon which flood control dams are based should
cause us to doubt even more our reliance on those dams.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #70 of 86: Rip Van Winkle (keta) Wed 5 Oct 05 16:05
Still, at least the feeling of what seems like Randy's underlying
question/concern seems to remain.  

I'm reminded of the story of the (Ethiopian?) tribe where
neck-ornaments are worn that stretch your neck.  It's a sign of status
to keep adding ornaments and getting a longer and longer neck.  But the
worst punishment/threat of the tribe is to remove someone's neck
ornaments.  Because once your neck has become stretched, it is too weak
to hold your head without the ornaments.  Lose them and you die.

Taking the analogy, the Central Valley with it's current economy is
supported by the neck-ornaments of the big dams.  And even if you show
that neck-ornaments are really bad for you and shouldn't be used, the
fear/question is still "but how could I possibly take them off?!"
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #71 of 86: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 5 Oct 05 18:21

> urban water managers in California are now more interested
>  in building desal plants than new dams

In your section about Australia's Murray River, you talk about the intrusion
of salt in the former flood plains, Jacques, and how the increase salinity
is part of what's killing off the gum trees.

If California sets up desalinization plants to provide water for our major
urban areas, what happens to the salt that's removed? Where does it go?
Won't that just create another salt problem?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #72 of 86: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Wed 5 Oct 05 18:28
My guess is that there would be fewer salt ponds.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #73 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Wed 5 Oct 05 18:46
Re #70, I'm not arguing that the dams that support Central Valley
agriculture should be taken down, nor have I seen any serious proposals to
do that. What would make sense in promoting water efficiency would be to
price water at something approaching its real cost of delivery to farmers.
But even that step is not politically feasible, thanks to the huge clout and
campaign donations of California's big agricultural producers.

Even so, these concerns are still relevant in current proposals to build
Auburn Dam and raise the height of Shasta Dam. Auburn is presented as a
flood control issue, and the Shasta raise would allegedly help downstream
salmon, but in both cases the real beneficiaries probably would be San
Joaquin Valley farmers. To use your analogy, the farmers already have enough
ornaments to hold up their necks, but they continue to ask the rest of us to
pay for more.

Re #71, the chief byproduct of desalination plants is brine, which is dumped
in the ocean. To be sure, that can cause environmental damage, but it bears
no relation to the sort of problems that the Murray basin faces. Indeed,
there are attempts now to figure out how to combine the brine-- in essence,
extremely salty water-- with the outflows of sewage treatment plants, which
aren't salty at all, so that the combination would more closely resemble
ocean water than either constituent alone. I don't think that has been done
anywhere yet, but that's the sort of solution (no pun intended) that is
being considered.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #74 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Wed 5 Oct 05 18:59
By the way, I find it intriguing that the strategy of Deep Water is to lure
readers to the complicated subject of water and dams by hanging these issues
on the frames of its three main characters-- by telling novel-like stories--
yet in this discussion we've talked about water and dams but not the people:
it's as if the characters don't exist. If the book is an attempt to turn the
usual approach to such a subject inside out, here we've turned things
outside in again. I'm certainly happy to continue talking about water and
dams, but I'm also curious about why this has happened.

Of course, I understand that this may be simply because many people posting
here haven't had a chance to read the book....
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #75 of 86: Philippe Habib (phabib) Thu 6 Oct 05 11:50
I didn't bring this up but now that you have...

I'm interested in water and dams and environmental issues but I found
your strategy of using the stories to get the information about the
dams out to be difficult to quickly read and to get the very good
information that's in the book.  (what an awful sentence)

I was expecting to get the usual 1.  Here is the situation, 2. Here is
why it exists, 3.  here are the side effects,  4.  Here is my

Instead I got some very well and vividly described descriptions of a
much larger situation and I was on my own to paste it together.

Now, not being spoon fed in the manner I was expecting is not a bad
thing but it takes more time and effort from the reader.  I'm sure it
also took a lot more time and effort from you as a writer and that
you're justly proud of the task.

Maybe in a forum such as this one people don't have, or aren't taking,
the time to discuss the topic using the indirection of story and


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