Sandra Postel | An Island Press author

Sandra Postel

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes and consults on global water issues. In 2010 she was appointed Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. 

During 2000-2008, Sandra was visiting senior lecturer in Environmental Studies at Mount Holyoke College, and late in that term directed the college's Center for the Environment. From 1988 until 1994, she was vice president for research at the Worldwatch Institute. Sandra is a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and has been named one of the Scientific American 50, an award recognizing contributions to science and technology.

A leading authority and prolific author on international water issues, Sandra has been hailed for her “inspiring, innovative and practical approach” to promoting the preservation and sustainable use of freshwater. She is author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity (Island Press, 2017), Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? and Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, chosen by Choice magazine as a 1993 Outstanding Academic Book. Last Oasis appears in eight languages and was the basis for a 1997 PBS documentary. Sandra’s article “Troubled Waters” was selected for inclusion in the 2001 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing. She is also co-author (with Brian Richter) of Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature (Island Press 2003). Sandra co-founded and regularly contributes to National Geographic’s freshwater blog, Water Currents.

Sandra has authored more than 100 articles for popular and scholarly publications, including Science, Natural History, Scientific American, Foreign Policy, Ecological Applications, Technology Review, Environmental Science and Technology, International Wildlife, and Water Alternatives. She has written some 20 op-ed features that have appeared in more than 30 newspapers in the United States and abroad, including the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and the Washington Post. A frequent conference speaker and lecturer, she has also served as commentator on CNN's Futurewatch, addressed the European Parliament on environmental issues, and appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, ABC’s Nightline, and NPR’s Science Friday. She also appears in the BBC’s Planet Earth, Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour, and the National Geographic Channel’s Breakthrough series.

Sandra is Water Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, and has served as advisor to the Division on Earth and Life Studies of the U.S. National Research Council, as well as to American Rivers. She has served on the Board of Directors of the International Water Resources Association and on the editorial boards of Ecosystems, Water Policy, and Green Futures. She received a B.A. (summa cum laude) in geology and political science at Wittenberg University and an M.E.M. with emphasis on resource economics and policy at Duke University. Sandra has been awarded several honorary Doctor of Science degrees, as well as the Duke University School of Environment’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

How to Keep Western Rivers Flowing As Water Shortages Loom

To ensure a reliable water supply in a drier future, we must embrace 21st-century solutions that restore river health while respecting the needs of existing users and communities.

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published March 9, 2018 in The Hill

The drought now gripping the southwestern United States feels scarily familiar. In a recent public opinion survey of western voters, 82 percent listed low river levels as their top concern when it came to water.

In five of the last seven years the snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin on March 1 has registered below the long-term average. It has been nearly two decades since Lakes Powell and Mead, the giant reservoirs on the Colorado River that supply water to some 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland, were full. Currently, their capacities stand at 55 percent and 41 percent respectively, and with much of the Colorado River Basin now in severe or extreme drought, those lake levels will not rise significantly any time soon. 

Yet people continue to flock to the states that share the liquid lifelines of the Colorado River. They come for many reasons. But many are drawn by the great outdoors — the fishing, boating, kayaking, tubing, bird-watching and other activities made possible by rivers flowing through beautiful landscapes. The Colorado Basin boasts a $26 billion recreation economy that depends on water staying in rivers rather than being taken out of them.

Without a doubt, securing enough water for cities, farmers, businesses, and nature will require a balancing act. But there is reason for optimism: through innovation, collaboration and smarter management there is vast untapped potential to achieve that balance. 

Conservation, efficiency, recycling, reuse and storm-water capture are proven, cost-effective measures that can often negate the need for expensive and harmful dams and diversions. Especially in agriculture, incentives to invest in efficiency — from micro-irrigation to canal modernization to more precise irrigation scheduling — could free up water to restore depleted rivers. 

Continue reading on The Hill...

Urban Resilience

We've Broken the Water Cycle, So Let's Begin to Fix It

To survive the 21st century, we must apply our ingenuity to living in balance with nature and building resilience to the climatic changes under way.

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published January 23, 2018 in Quartz.

Managing water — making sure there’s enough while keeping inundation at bay — is a central function of civilization. History is littered with impressive cultures that didn’t get it right, sealing their doom — from the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia to the Hohokam of the American Southwest.

It might seem that such lessons don’t apply to modern-day Americans, with our reservoirs and dams and water treatment plants. Certainly, our water-management systems are a marvel. They re-route rivers and make the desert bloom; they enable most of us to shower, flush, eat and drink while barely giving water a thought.

But, increasingly, these systems are failing to deliver. Just ask farmers in the western United States whose wells have run dry. Or fishermen whose livelihoods depend on coastal waters degraded by toxic algal blooms. Or ask refugees from recent floods in Puerto Rico or Texas.

The massive water systems that undergird our civilization involve a Faustian bargain: They allow us to control water to suit our needs, but in doing so they break the water cycle — the natural storage, cleansing and flow of water in healthy forests, rivers, soils, wetlands, and aquifers. Dams and reservoirs store water so we can use it when needed, but they also block fish migrations, destroy habitats, and trap sediment that replenishes deltas, which then leaves coastal residents vulnerable to storms and flooding. The draining of wetlands has opened up vast areas for crop production, but has left rivers and streams vulnerable to pollution that creates massive “dead zones” in coastal areas. Large-scale pumping of groundwater has led to a boom in agricultural production, but is now rapidly depleting aquifers that have stored water for thousands of years.

And our water challenges are only getting harder. The changing climate has thrown hydrologic cycles out of whack, making it difficult to ensure continuous supply and protect against floods. It’s little wonder that in 2016 the World Economic Forum declared water crises to be the top global threat to society over the next decade.

So what do we do? One lesson is key: We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done and expect a different result. More and more, water security is going to depend on working with nature, rather than against it.

Take the risks to our drinking water from wildfires and the land erosion and flooding that often follows them. Fire is essential to a healthy forest, but during much of the twentieth century, foresters snuffed fires out quickly to protect timber resources and nearby communities. As a result, many forests have become dense and overgrown, so when fires do break out they burn hotter and faster, especially in times of drought. On average, fires in the United States now consume twice as much area per year as three decades ago.

Continuing reading on Quartz...

Urban Resilience

#ForewordFriday: A Secure Water Future

In the words of Elizabeth Kolbert, "Nothing is more important to life than water, and no one knows water better than Sandra Postel." Postel's new book Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and...

In the words of Elizabeth Kolbert, "Nothing is more important to life than water, and no one knows water better than Sandra Postel." Postel's new book Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity is a "clear-eyed treatise" (Booklist, Starred Review) that offers a hopeful vision of a secure water future. It shows how cities and farms around the world are finding relief from an unexpected source: a healthier water cycle.

A lifelong steward of Earth's finite freswater, Postel's ideas are especially timely in light of tremendous flooding from monster storms and new megafires that threaten our watersheds. From Arizona's Verde Valley to China's "sponge cities," each story in Replenish shows the value of a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to water management that blends engineering, ecology, and economics to capitalize on the fundamental value of nature’s services.

Check out an excerpt from the book below.