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The Water Softener: Interview with David Brooks

David Brooks tells how the soft path strategy makes the most of the water we have.

Satisfying the world’s growing demand for clean water is a monumental challenge. With water supply infrastructure now stretched to the limit, editors David Brooks, Oliver Brandes and Stephen Gurman offer a new management approach in Making the Most of the Water We Have. Based on energy’s proven soft path strategy, the book goes far beyond touting water efficiency: it points the way toward decreasing worldwide demand for this precious resource and shows how we can save money getting there.

Kurtis Elton, one of the book’s many contributors, recently met with David Brooks for some background on this strategy as it begins to gain steam.

Kurtis Elton Tell us about the water soft path.

David Brooks It’s a governance approach to water management featuring two general characteristics as defining criteria. First, sustainability is not determined at the end; it’s an absolute precondition. We have to have a sustainable system. The other is that the main focus is on demand, not on supply. It says you can do a lot of things with a lot less water, right now.

Elton What was your motivation for starting Making the Most of the Water We Have?

Brooks Much of my early work was on surface-mine reclamation. I realized that as long as we keep having more surface mines, we’re just taking something that’s destructive and making it a little bit less destructive. We’re always in a fix-up mode. It was about that time that Amory Lovins came by with the soft energy path, which says you just can’t do it that way. We’ve got to do something fundamentally different. That’s got to apply to water, too. As Amory says, “No one ever cuddled up to a battery,” but water’s quite different. A lake is something you want. We started off talking about this, then we suddenly realized there was enough to write a book.

Elton You explain in the book that water soft paths are predominantly about values. What do you mean?

Brooks It goes back to defining sustainability. What is it that you want from your water system? That’s a political question. Some things like low-flush toilets, as long as they work, aren’t really political choices. But a lot of the other things are, such as outdoor water use at home. Why do we grow grass?

Elton How does the recession affect the adoption of the water soft path approach?

Brooks Two ways – one bad and one good. The bad way is the obvious one: people are trying to get the economy going no matter what. I think a lot of environmental rules are being bent in order to make sure people are employed. On the other hand, people feel strongly about water. The enormous cost of water infrastructure suggests that there may be a better way to go. I don’t take seriously these projections that we need X billions of dollars for water infrastructure in the next 20 years, but I think that’s a great opening for water soft paths.

Elton Have there been any developments to the soft path approach to water management since the book was published?

Brooks There has been a much greater uptake of the idea by government. I think we made a couple of very serious errors with soft energy paths. One is that we assumed prices would stay up where they were [in the 1980s]. And second, we said, “We have found the way – come to us.” People didn’t. This time, we’ve been promoting water-soft-path planning right from the start.

Kurtis Elton co-authored a chapter in Making the Most of the Water We Have on taking the water soft path from idea to government policy. He never fails to time his showers.

Making the Most of the Water We Have
David Brooks, Oliver Brandes and Stephen Gurman, eds.
Earthscan, 2009.
The entire Water Soft Path project and associated documents can be found at waterdsm.org/softpath.

Originally published in Alternatives Journal’s Subscribe to Alternatives Today!