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Precious Commodity

Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities

MARTIN V. MELOSI
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zwbjx
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    Precious Commodity
    Book Description:

    As an essential resource, water has been the object of warfare, political wrangling, and individual and corporate abuse. It has also become an object of commodification, with multinational corporations vying for water supply contracts in many countries. InPrecious Commodity,Martin V. Melosi examines water resources in the United States and addresses whether access to water is an inalienable right of citizens, and if government is responsible for its distribution as a public good.Melosi provides historical background on the construction, administration, and adaptability of water supply and wastewater systems in urban America. He cites budgetary constraints and the deterioration of existing water infrastructures as factors leading many municipalities to seriously consider the privatization of their water supply. Melosi also views the role of government in the management of, development of, and legal jurisdiction over America's rivers and waterways for hydroelectric power, flood control, irrigation, and transportation access. Looking to the future, he compares the costs and benefits of public versus private water supply, examining the global movement toward privatization.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7776-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: WATER—TRULY A PRECIOUS COMMODITY
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    A common and oft-repeated statement is that “water is the next oil.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. The comparisons, of course, are understandable. Oil has become scarcer and more expensive. We have reached peak oil and the world faces a downward spiral—fast or slowly depending upon who you believe—to the bottom of that energy barrel. Fresh water, too, is a finite resource with demand on the rise, and inevitably, higher prices to follow. Concerns abound regarding water as a fixed supply, often with limited access, and perpetually undervalued in terms of cost. One set of statistics...

  2. CHAPTER ONE “Improving” Rivers in America: FROM THE REVOLUTION TO THE PROGRESSIVE ERA
    (pp. 1-36)

    This chapter was extracted from a book I coauthored with David Billington and D.C. Jackson,The History of Large Federal Dams: Planning, Design, and Construction,which was underwritten by the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Park Service (NPS). Although dealing with “federal involvement in dam construction” in general, the book gave greater focus to the West, where many of the largest federal dams were built. For reasons that had to do more with funding than scholarly appraisal, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dams were not included in the study, although it should be noted...

  3. CHAPTER TWO How Bad Theory Can Lead to Good Technology: WATER SUPPLY AND SEWERAGE IN THE AGE OF MIASMAS
    (pp. 37-56)

    This chapter grew out of research for my bookThe Sanitary City. It was first presented as a paper in 1998 at a small conference, “Inventing for the Environment,” convened by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The intent of the conference was to focus on historical issues that demonstrated “the complex relationship among invention, innovation, and the environment.”¹ The ideal or belief grounding all symposia and other activities sponsored by the center has been “the conviction that historians and innovators have much to learn...

  4. CHAPTER THREE Pure and Plentiful: THE DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN WATERWORKS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1880–2000
    (pp. 57-77)

    This chapter was a distillation of draft sections fromThe Sanitary Cityon waterworks prepared for a special issue ofWater Policy, the official journal of the World Water Council. Edited by Martin Reuss, formerly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Office of History, the topic of the special issue was “Historical Perspectives on Global Water Challenges” and in large measure grew out of a conference entitled, “Water in History: Global Perspectives” held in Aberystwyth, Wales, in 1999. The event was a crucial step toward the initiation of the International Water History Association.

    The shift in momentum toward public...

  5. CHAPTER FOUR The Environmental Impact of the Big Dam Era
    (pp. 78-109)

    This piece was the concluding chapter inThe History of Large Federal Dams: Planning, Design, and Construction, and as such, it deals especially with the story and environmental impacts of big dam development. This chapter also had a western orientation largely because of the book’s strong emphasis on the Big Dam Era, lasting from 1935 to 1965, which gave us, among others, Hoover, Grand Coulee, and Glen Canyon Dams located west of the Mississippi River. The dynamic impact of dam building and the contradictory perceptions of dams themselves, however, raise several universal issues beyond the geographic focus represented here.

    The...

  6. CHAPTER FIVE Private Water: THE CURIOUS CASE OF SAN JOSE’S WATER SUPPLY
    (pp. 110-127)

    San Jose, California, is an anomaly. Throughout an extended era when public water systems prevailed in the United States, a major portion of the city’s water supply came from and still comes from a private company. This was not a burning issue for me growing up in what was at the time a relatively modest-sized city in Santa Clara County in the 1940s and 1950s. Many years later—now living in Houston—when I was plotting the outline forThe Sanitary City, I initially intended to utilize four major case studies to tell my story of water supply, wastewater, and...

  7. CHAPTER SIX The Historical Significance of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou
    (pp. 128-143)

    This chapter grew out of a project in coordination with the National Park Service (NPS) to seek the designation of a National Heritage Area for Buffalo Bayou, the water artery running through Houston, Texas. According to the NPS: “National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress. . . . For an area to be considered for designation, certain key elements must be present. First and foremost, the landscape must have nationally distinctive natural, cultural, historic, and scenic resources that, when linked together, tell a unique story about our country.”¹

    Those of us involved in the project are convinced that Buffalo Bayou...

  8. CHAPTER SEVEN Houston’s Public Sinks: WATER AND WASTEWATER SERVICES—LOCAL CONCERNS TO REGIONAL CHALLENGES
    (pp. 144-180)

    The original version of this chapter appeared inEnergy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast(2007), edited by me and my colleague Joseph Pratt. The overriding purpose of the book was to demonstrate how cities by their very nature are energy intensive—in some instances generators of energy sources but certainly major consumers of energy. In the case of Houston, the concentration of oil refining and petrochemical industries in the twentieth century not only greatly affected its economic life, but also degraded its air and water quality. Less well understood is how the emergence of a...

  9. CHAPTER EIGHT Privatization of Water: U.S. AND WORLDWIDE IMPLICATIONS
    (pp. 181-196)

    The privatization movement with respect to municipal water supply confronts some practical issues and one that is more esoteric. From a practical standpoint, does a privatized approach to water delivery offer a better, more cost-effective, and efficient means of providing potable water to customers than public service? Is privatization simply a way to encourage economic development with players from within and without a region who see a public system as an impediment to such growth? From a broader perspective, does privatization undermine the idea of water as a public good?

    Answering these questions is incredibly difficult. Imbedded in the first...

  10. Conclusion: THE QUESTION OF CONTROL
    (pp. 197-202)

    This book provides historical perspective on public and private responsibility for water as a resource, be it water supplies for drinking and washing, river and dam development, or water as an urban artery. The contested nature of water is a powerful indicator of its central importance. Just how it is controlled and by whom can make the difference between economic failure and success, an inhabitable or barren physical environment, and life or death itself. In extreme cases, state control of water, on the one hand, and private monopoly of water, on the other, can be wielded as a kind of...