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 of 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. Time, 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.

#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. 

Photo credit: Fountain by user Nicola

A New Water Story: In Conversation with Sandra Postel

If disasters related to droughts, floods, and other extreme weather seem more common globally, it’s because they are: nearly twice as many such disasters occur annually now as 25 years ago. These problems are not going away. Last year, the World...

If disasters related to droughts, floods, and other extreme weather seem more common globally, it’s because they are: nearly twice as many such disasters occur annually now as 25 years ago. These problems are not going away. Last year, the World Economic Forum declared water crises to be the top global risk to society over the next decade. As we look to safeguard clean drinking water, manage and adapt to more frequent droughts and floods, and balance environmental protection with economic progress, renowned water expert Sandra Postel’s Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity comes at a critical time. We spoke with Sandra about how cities and farms around the world are finding relief from an unexpected source: a healthier water cycle. Have more questions? Share them in the comments below.

You’re a renowned water expert and prolific writer on water issues around the world. What sets Replenish apart from your previous work?

This book is anchored by stories of real people and places that show how we can fix our broken water cycle, which humanity’s future depends upon. Like all of my books, Replenish is grounded in sound science and extensive research. But most of us learn from, remember, and are motivated by stories.  We face very big water challenges—which I describe in detail—and it’s easy to descend into despair. But what I show is that a future of depleted rivers, dried-up wetlands, and toxic dead zones is not inevitable. Yes, the water cycle is broken, but one river, one wetland, one city, one farm at a time, we can begin to fix it.

For centuries we’ve relied on engineering infrastructure like dams and levees to manage freshwater. Why is it important to take a more interdisciplinary approach to water management?   

Freshwater ecosystems, when healthy and functioning well, service the economy in vital ways. A healthy watershed stores and cleanses water, reducing the cost of water treatment. A healthy, flowing river supports habitat for birds and wildlife and offers recreational opportunities critical to local economies. For a couple centuries we’ve been trading nature’s services for engineering services—for example, building levees to control floods rather than letting natural floodplains do that work. But those engineering solutions are no longer working as well as they once did, and their economic costs are rising. Now that we better understand how nature functions, and how valuable its services are, we can blend ecology and engineering, along with the social and economic sciences, to produce more optimal solutions to our growing water problems, including worsening floods and droughts.

An almond farm in California's Central Valley is flooded in the wintertime to replenish groundwater supplies while scientists study the effects on soils, tree health, and water quality. Photo by Joe Proudman/UC Davis.

Except when referring to official titles or organizations, you do not use the phrase “water resources” in Replenish. Was this a conscious choice? What power does language have to change the way we think about our relationship to freshwater? 

For many years now I have made a conscious decision to not use the phrase “water resources.” First and foremost, water is the basis of life. If we refer to rivers and lakes as “water resources” we immediately think of them in a utilitarian way—that they’re there for us to use and take as we see fit, much the way we think of oil or coal. It’s important that we think of a river as a living, flowing part of nature that sustains life. Yes, that river can be a “resource” for the generation of energy and the provision of water supplies, but most fundamentally, it’s a river.

Economic and environmental interests are often positioned in opposition to one another. Why is this a false narrative in terms of water?

A secure supply of water is critical to everything—producing food, manufacturing goods, enjoying the outdoors, and sustaining life. In the Colorado River Basin, economic activity that generates some $26 billion a year depends on water staying in rivers rather than taking it out of them. So the key is finding the balance that, in economic terms, maximizes the value of water. For example, on the Verde River in central Arizona, conservationists have partnered with irrigators to install automated headgates on ditch systems that allow irrigators to take just the water they need, rather than diverting all of the river’s flow. There’s no loss of farm production, the community gets a healthier, flowing river during the summer recreation season, and birds and wildlife get healthier habitat. So the water in the Verde now has more value. One of the key messages of Change the Course, the national water restoration initiative I helped create, and which has restored billions of gallons of water to depleted ecosystems in North America, is that by getting smarter about how we use water, we can have healthy rivers, productive agriculture, and vibrant economies side by side. 

Replenish by Sandra Postel

Replenish explores innovative water projects all over the world. Is there a particular project that stands out to you?

Wow, that’s a tough one.  A number of projects stand out—from China’s “sponge cities,” to Europe’s efforts to give the Danube and other rivers room to flood again, to the innovative irrigation methods being pioneered in Georgia’s Flint River Basin, to the restoration of the Colorado River Delta. But if I had to pick one I think it would be the creation of the Rio Grande Water Fund in New Mexico. This is a collaborative initiative to rehabilitate forested watersheds to build resilience against the impacts of wildfire on downstream drinking water supplies. It connects the whole community to its source of water—the watershed—and brings businesses, water utilities, conservationists, and local citizens together to build greater water security. It is stewardship in action.

News about water in the age of climate change is often despondent, but Replenish is hopeful. What gives you that hope? 

What gives me hope is that we can point to farmers, ranchers, cities, and businesses that are making a difference and showing that we can live more harmoniously with nature and its freshwater ecosystems. The challenge is to learn from these experiences, adapt them to new situations, and scale up these solutions. This is easier said than done; it will take changes in policies and incentives. But it’s doable. 

I should add that I am not terribly hopeful that we will prevent a good share of the rich diversity of life in freshwaters—fish, mussels, amphibians, and other species—from going extinct. The combination of dams, diversions, pollution, and climate change puts more and more species in peril. And this deeply saddens me. But as I show in Replenish, we can absolutely take action to slow the rate of extinction and save more species. Restoring and preserving flows in the Verde, San Pedro, and Gila Rivers in the American Southwest, for example, will help sustain incredibly diverse populations of birds that depend on those riparian habitats.

Casey Wade moves cattle according to his rotational grazing plan on the Dixon Water Foundation's Mimms Ranch outside of Marfa, Texas. Photo © Terrie Wade.

Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?

I grew up in New York, on Long Island, and it surprised me to learn how much of Long Island’s coastal bays and estuaries and inland lakes and ponds are now degraded by toxic algal blooms. When I was a kid, some of these water bodies were premier areas for clams, oysters, and recreation. These algal blooms pose threats to the local fishing economy and the health of people and pets. Research suggests that if nothing is done to reduce the nitrogen pollution causing these toxic algal blooms, much of which comes from inadequate treatment of human sewage, the costs to fishing, tourism, and real estate on Long Island could total some $25 billion over the next thirty years. Algal blooms are spreading in many coastal areas around the world, and these blooms will worsen as waters warm. Technologies and measures exist to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution causing these algal blooms, but we need to implement them.

What do you hope readers take away from this book? 

I’d like readers to come away knowing that we have the capacity to write a new water story.  Yes, our water challenges are big, and Replenish provides a good overview of their nature and magnitude. But depletion and dead zones do not have to define our future.  We have barely tapped the innovative ways we can do more with less water – and then give some water back to nature.  We live on a finite planet with finite water. As the basis of life, water needs to be shared with all of life. Replenish offers up ideas for how we can all engage in water stewardship. My hope is that it inspires more people, communities, farmers, businesses, and political leaders to act.

Why the US Clean Water Rule Needs to Stay in Place

We have many lessons to learn from the tragedies wrought by Hurricane Harvey, but among the most important is that a broken water cycle increases risks to our communities and economies.

This post originally appeared on National Geographic's Water Currents blog and is reposted here with permission. 

We have many lessons to learn from the tragedies wrought by Hurricane Harvey, but among the most important is that a broken water cycle increases risks to our communities and economies.

Floodplains, tributaries, wetlands, lakes, ponds, rivers and groundwater form an interconnected whole that helps ensure clean, safe, reliable water supplies.  A well-functioning water cycle naturally moderates both floods and droughts, reducing societal risks from both.

The Trump administration’s proposal to rescind the Obama-era Clean Water Rule would further break the natural water cycle just at the time we need to double-down on repairing it.

The motivation for the Clean Water Rule arose from Supreme Court decisions, in particular the 2006 case of Rapanos v. United States, that sowed consideration confusion about which waters came under the jurisdiction of the federal Clean Water Act, and which did not.

A headwater stream in the Rio Grande watershed in New Mexico. Photo: Sandra Postel

Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) were spending considerable time and tax dollars determining whether or not a particular stream or wetland was protected under the Act. Just between 2008 and 2015, the agencies had to make some 100,000 case-by-case determinations, causing backlogs and delays.

The 2015 rule, also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, clarified the definition and expanded protection to headwater streams and some 20 million acres (8 million hectares) of wetlands. An EPA-Corps economic analysis of the rule published in May of that year found that while the additional water protections would have negative economic impacts on certain industries and farm enterprises, the benefits to society from cleaner and more secure water supplies exceeded those costs.

In June 2017, as the Trump administration moved to rescind the rule, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ordered agency staff to redo the economic analysis and omit the half billion dollars of benefits associated with wetland protection, according to reporting by the New York Times.

Scientists are speaking out against the repeal of the 2015 Clean Water Rule.

letter already signed by more than 320 scientists (including me) from academia, state agencies, nonprofits, and the private sector notes that more than 1,200 peer-reviewed publications clearly establish “the vital importance” of wetlands and headwater streams “to clean water and the health of the nation’s rivers.”

In an amicus curiae (literally, friend of the court) brief to the Supreme Court in the Rapanos case, ten scientists (including me) argued that “when it comes to the connection of tributaries, streams, and wetlands to navigable waters and interstate commerce, there is no ecological ambiguity….[I]f the Clean Water Act does not protect these resources, then it does not protect navigable waters from pollution, and it cannot achieve its goals.”

But the Trump administration is once again pushing sound science aside in its attempt to roll back regulations.

Continue reading the full post here