Category: Author Interviews

Q&A with Will Schutt, the 2012 Winner of Yale Series of Younger Poets

Will-Schutt-Photo_smHappy National Poetry Month! Check out the new site, Youngerpoets.org!

 

Yale University Press had the pleasure of interviewing Will Schutt, whose collection, Westerly, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2012 and was published last spring. Here, we discussed about writing poetry and the relevance of poetry in today’s modern society. Visit the new Yale Series of Younger Poets website for more information on the history of the prize, published books, and of course, our illustrious list of poets.

 

Yale University Press: What prompted you to start writing? And why poetry in particular as opposed to prose?

Will Schutt: I had good teachers, bookish parents, and a brother who was a great talker. I have never been a great talker, yet I have always felt an urgency to express myself. I tried drawing, but I was no good at drawing. I tried acting, but I was too shy to perform. When I wrote prose, I had no gift for storytelling. That’s not to say that poetry was my last resort, but it turned out to be the best means of articulation at my disposal.

 

YUP: What or who are your primary sources of inspiration?

WS: Good books, a room with a view, my wife’s curiosity.

 

YUP: How would you describe your overall process as well as your day-to-day writing schedule?

WesterlyWS: I write early in the morning, when I have the feeling that I don’t owe anyone anything yet, that I only have myself to answer to. I’m not sure there’s an overall process to speak of. As with soup, you keep stirring and tasting, stirring and tasting. Writing the poems in Westerly largely consisted of unearthing a pattern in an idea or experience (real or fictional). Pattern, after all, is pleasure. But there is pleasure in variation too. More and more often I find myself beginning with a formal pattern or turning over a particular word—ferry, carnival, wishy-washy, etc.—and figuring out how much I can deviate from the pattern or word’s associative meanings without giving way to chaos.

 

YUP: Which audience (if any) do you have in mind when crafting your work?

WS: Usually I do not have an audience in mind. Occasionally I wonder what certain writers I admire would think. Once in a blue moon I worry about what someone who isn’t a native speaker of English might make of my work.

 

YUP: What is your reaction to rejection? How do you internalize that experience?

WS: “They don’t know genius when they see it.” Or “They’re absolutely right. It’s crap.”

 

YUP: How do you know when your work is “finished”? Do you find yourself editing work that you deemed complete a long time ago?

WS: It is a good sign if I have surprised myself, if I have landed somewhere I hadn’t set out to land originally. I try to exhaust a poem’s possibilities and then work backward to see if everything in the poem is essential. I do return to work I had thought was finished, oftentimes with the result that I rip the poem up and repurpose a few lines.

 

YUP: Mark Edmundson wrote an article for Harper’s last summer, claiming that American poetry is in decline. Do you see this as real problem in today’s literary landscape?

WS: No, I don’t. I don’t even think Edmundson’s criteria for great poetry—that is, if I remember correctly, poetry that is more “public”—fits my own criteria for greatness. I come across plenty of ambitious, inspired American poetry of the moment. Poetry continues to change and sometimes people get off on sounding poetry’s death knell whenever it doesn’t resemble the model they’ve established for it.

 

YUP: Attention spans are deteriorating and we’re allegedly moving towards a post-literate society; why do you think poetry remains relevant today?

WS: I currently teach modern and contemporary poetry to high school students who prove to me on a weekly basis that poetry has hardly lost its relevance. It continues to be an antidote to deteriorating attention spans, to the manipulation of language, to deadening language, to dullness period. 

 

Will Schutt is the author of Westerly, winner of the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. A graduate of Oberlin College and Hollins University, he is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the Gilman School, the James Merrill House, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University. He was recently awarded the Jeannette Haein Ballard Writers’ Prize. His poems and translations have appeared in Agni, FIELD, the New Republic and elsewhere. He currently lives with his wife in Baltimore, Maryland. More information can be found at his website: www.wschutt.com.

Our Texts are Palatial: Words from Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

Jews and Words is a book that celebrates the written word with a very particular voice that grew out of a lifetime of father-daughter conversations between co-authors Amos Oz, and Fania Oz-Salberger. As Martin Peretz of the Wall Street Journal noted, “You cannot get the taste of this book, let alone its essence, without reading it.” It seems natural to let Amos and Fania’s words speak for themselves.

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Amos and Fania’s interviews with NPR and i24 News provide another glimpse into their ongoing dialogue about the Jewish literary tradition. Hear in their own words what it means to be Jewish atheists, how the words “Jews” and “readers” can be interchangeable, and how Jews grew uniquely dependent on words.

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For more from Amos and Fania, listen to their conversation on the Yale Press Podcast with John Donatich and like Jews and Words on Facebook.

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Message: Don’t Look to Suicide, Stay with Us

Twenty years ago, the suicide of Kurt Cobain shook not only the alternative music scene, but much of popular culture as we know it. The infamous 27 Club, which then included musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, and more recently, Amy Winehouse, was mainly a phenomenon of accidental deaths and murder. Though many died from drug and alcohol related causes, Cobain’s suicide has continued to be a subject of great spectacle and controversy, even as the case was re-opened briefly in March 2014 and confirmed as suicide. The heartfelt responses—both of today and yesteryear—have rippled out from Cobain’s native Seattle region and reached a global recognition of this type of tragedy.

Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against ItIn the critically-acclaimed, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, Jennifer Michael Hecht  examines suicide from a number of philosophical, religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions, bringing forward the argument of what its impact has become in our contemporary society and how we deal —collectively—with the pain. In the video below, recorded for The Dish, Hecht discusses the mimetic tendencies of suicide in response to the impact that an individual’s suicide has on friends, family, and community.  The message is to stay with us, as a part of a community: If you don’t kill yourself, you’re saving someone else’s life. “I’m grateful, you’re my hero. Thank you for not killing yourself.”

Jennifer Michael Hecht: The Impact Of A Suicide from The Dish on Vimeo.

Q&A With Kristie Macrakis, Author of Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies

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Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda is a book about concealing and revealing secret communications. It is the first history of invisible writing, uncovered through stories about scoundrels and heroes. Spies were imprisoned or murdered, adultery unmasked, and battles lost because of faulty or intercepted secret communications. Yet, successfully hidden writing helped save lives, win battles, and ensure privacy. Yale University Press sat down with author Kristie Macrakis to talk about the spy wars, chemical discoveries, and famous characters that make up this hidden history.

 

Yale University Press:What inspired your research into the history of hidden writing?

Kristie Macrakis: It was precisely the hidden nature of the subject that inspired my research. It all began with a quest to uncover the Stasi’s (East German secret police and intelligence agency) secret writing methods in order to better understand the United States’ secret methods.

After spending considerable time probing secret writing files I finally hit pay dirt. I was handed a top secret Stasi Cold War invisible ink formula from the 1970s and successfully reproduced it. It was so exciting that my heart started pumping like that of a kid who just stole a candybar. When I was slated to deliver a lecture on invisible ink, I discovered no single book had been written about the subject though there were dozens about codes and ciphers.

The book grew out of that discovery, was research out of curiosity, and was written because of a need. It is the book I wish I had found on the shelf.

 

YUP: What is your all-time favorite story about invisible ink?

KM: It depends on my mood, but I’m particularly fond of the Nazi tooth spy story. I’ve just written a blog about it, but to make a long story short, a Nazi spy parachuted into England with secret ink hidden in his molar. It’s a good story, but it is just one example of many about the fascinating and bizarre ways in which people concealed their secret ink materials.

 

YUP: Do you reveal any previously secret hidden writing techniques or stories in Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies?

KM: The whole book is filled with secrets that have never been told before! It’s suitable for anyone who loves a secret. It started with the discovery of the Stasi secret writing method and goes backward from there. While some readers may have heard that General George Washington used sympathetic ink, not many know that the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of Vitamin C, Linus Pauling invented ingenious secret ink methods during World War II. He went to his grave with the secret revealed here for the first time. Of course, I can’t reveal all of them here!

 

YUP: Did hidden writing ever change the course of history?

KM: Probably one of the most changing the course of history events happened thousands of years ago in ancient Greece and shaped the future of Western civilization. It involved Demaratus’s (a Spartan exiled in Persia) warning of surprise attack by Xerxes, king of Persia, written on a blank wax tablet. How many changing the course of history events happened after that is up for debate.  Hidden messages save lives, win battles, ensure privacy, and occasionally change the course of history.

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YUP: Do advances in hidden writing reflect changes in the way we wage war today? Is it possible to identify causal relationships between changes in hidden writing and changes in warfare?

KM: It’s not necessarily changes in warfare that reflect advancements in secret writing, but changes in society and technology in general. For example, one could say that digital steganography (or digital hidden writing on the internet or in digital images) is the modern technological sophisticated reincarnation of invisible inks like lemon juice, highly sophisticated chemical combinations or better yet, ancient seemingly blank wax tablets. Stego came about because of new sophisticated digital techniques. Generals and foot soldiers then use the most effective way to communicate available. As a result, you’d be more likely to see a CIA spy propped up against a tree trunk with a laptop encrypting messages and sending them through an image jpeg rather than mixing chemicals. However, don’t forget, you can always use old-fashioned invisible ink in a pinch. If a spy is holed up in an al-Qaeda prison, he or she might only have urine – or he, semen – to write with.

 

YUP: In the book you show that during WW I there was kind of an arms race to develop new invisible inks. In the absence of such an open global war do you think hidden writing will stagnate?

KMacrakislightblue2KM: Yes, there was an arms race or see saw battle of wits as each side responded to more sophisticated invisible ink methods. The same thing could happen in modern warfare. For example, the NSA’s perceived enemies might have figured out how the NSA spies on its communications so it will develop other ways to communicate. When it does this, the NSA will  respond with new communication methods. Sometimes the warfare context stimulates scientific or technical change.

 

Kristie Macrakis is professor of history, technology, and society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is a historian of science as well as espionage and the author of numerous books and articles, including Seduced by Secrets. She lives in Atlanta, GA. Visit her website at www.kristiemacrakis.com.

On the Anniversary of the Iraq War

On March 20, 2003, coalition forces led by the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in what is still seen as a highly controversial decision made by the United States and its allies to “end the regime of Saddam Hussein” and to eliminate what were allegedly weapons of mass destruction in the possession of the Iraqi government.   On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech proclaiming the end of major combat operations in the war. Instead, it was only the beginning of the insurgency that has lasted to this day.


Read Pete Mansoor’s Reddit AMA


 

Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War

Retired US Army colonel Peter Mansoor, author of Yale University Press titles Baghdad at Sunrise and Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War, formerly served as executive officer to Petraeus, who was commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq from 2007 – 2008.  But Mansoor is an educator, too; currently he holds the position as General Raymond E. Mason, Jr., Chair of Military History at Ohio State University In writing Surge, he observes:

The misinformation and ignorance—among the general public, in the historical community, within the halls of government, and even in the military—about why the surge in Iraq succeeded is somewhat disheartening. Indeed, a number of pundits still refuse to admit that the surge had anything to do with the reduction of violence in Iraq. The American people need a more comprehensive account of the Iraq War during the years of the surge, one written from the inside perspective of a member of General Petraeus’s team.

Using newly declassified documents—including Petraeus’s own papers— unpublished manuscripts, interviews, author notes, and published sources, Mansoor‘s account of the 2007-2008 surge is the first to fully address not only insider events and knowledge alongside journalistic reporting in the media, but also information presented in the body of literature recently published on the topic of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. The results of Mansoor’s “perspective that time alone can provide” are synthesized in the book, and in fascinating detail he tells the on-the-ground story of what might yet become one of the most famous turning points in American military history. Watch our video trailer with the author and get started on the withdrawal from misinformed status.

 

The Political Decisions that Keep Guantanamo Bay Open

Listen to the podcast interview for The Terror Courts on iTunesU!

terrorCourtsOn the Yale Press Podcast, in conversation with Yale University Press Director John Donatich, author Jess Bravin revealed: “It was one of the commission’s big advocates, Senator Lindsey Graham, who told me, in effect, that you needed to put the 9/11 defendants on trial by military commission in order to justify the existence of military commissions . . . Justice in this case has been delayed in order to add to the creditability of military commissions by giving them marquee-level defendants to prosecute.”

Jess Bravin’s The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay has won numerous accolades for debunking presumptions like these about Guantanamo Bay and the military commissions. Terror Courts was a 2013 top political book pick by many, including the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly. Rolling Stone called it “captivating,” the New York Times labeled it a “welcome addition to the history of national security legal policy dilemmas in the Bush era.”

With The Terror Courts releasing in paperback this month, we are pleased to share an excerpt from the conversation between YUP Director John Donatich and Bravin. Guantanamo Bay once garnered enough public attention that then presidential candidate Barack Obama made closing the detention camp a campaign promise. John Donatich asks Bravin about the potential for sustained public outcry as the detainees cases drag on in the permanent military commissions:

John Donatich: What do you think now, with the hunger strikes getting more attention, at what point do you think Guantanamo will be an issue that Congress has no choice but to address, and will there be any kind of sustained public outcry against what’s happening?

Jess Bravin: Well there is no public outcry against what’s happening there that I can tell, there are certainly people that have been concerned about it, but it’s not an issue that motivates mass attention in the United States.

I think that if the congress remains as it is now—divided partisan control in the two chambers, and no constituency for addressing Guantanamo, it’s hard to image much happening from Capitol Hill. I think the initiative lies almost completely with President Obama. In his first term he was willing to expend zero political capital towards his campaign promise of closing Guantanamo and significantly altering the way that military trials worked—well, he did alter the way military trails work on paper, I have to say that. He did sponsor legislation that did afford defendants greater protections than they had previously, but in terms of closing the place and just closing the book on this post 9/11 experiment in parallel justice, he hasn’t really done anything to accomplish that after discovering there was some political price to pay for trying back in 2009.


Listen to their complete conversation on the Yale Press Podcast, now available through Yale University on iTunesU.

Jess Bravin

Jess Bravin

And the 2013 NBCC Biography Award Goes to… YUP Author Leo Damrosch!

In January, the National Book Critics Circle announced their annual award finalists for the 2013 publishing year. Among those honored for book reviewing, lifetime achievement, and books published in a myriad of categories is Yale University Press author Leo Damrosch, whose book Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World is a finalist in the biography category. Already selected as a New York Times Notable Book of 2013, the book was highlighted appreciatively by Marcela Valdes with a podcast for the NBCC’s “Critical Mass” blog, discussing each of the 30 book award finalists in turn. And last night several nominees read from their works.


Listen to Damrosch’s Yale Press Podcast interview with YUP Director John Donatich on iTunesU!


Tonight’s NBCC award ceremony is free and open to the public. Congratulations to Leo Damrosch for this prestigious nomination, and congrats to all of this year’s finalists from Yale University Press!

March 14, 2014 Update Damrosch is the recipient of this year’s NBCC Award in Biography! See our updated photo gallery below!

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Protect Your Love Life! Valentine’s Secret Ink Guest Post from Kristie Macrakis

macrakisIn celebration of Valentine’s Day, we have a special guest post from Kristie Macrakis, author of the forthcoming Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda. Read on for lovers’ secrets and be sure to watch the special Valentine’s Day video on secret writing techniques

Kristie Macrakis—

Ever feel bashful about expressing your feelings? Ever wish you could send your valentine an invisible message? Are you concerned that the NSA is reading your private thoughts?

Don’t worry anymore. For thousands of years lovers have used easily available materials to write secret messages written in invisible ink. Instead of sending an anonymous valentine this year, send it in invisible ink.

In ancient Rome, the love poet Ovid wrote a racy manual on the Art of Love and appears to be the first person to write about using milk to hide secret messages.  He tells us:

A letter too is safe and escapes the eye, when written in new milk:

Touch it with coal dust and you will read.

Well, you don’t need to use coal dust after pulling out the milk carton because you can simply heat the message and it will become visible. Of course, if you write the message on a body you might try a glutinous substance like ashes or dust to read the message, as you don’t want to burn your partner.

If you’d prefer to use lemon juice, that’s another very popular household invisible ink item. In case you didn’t know, by the 16th century many people used lemon or lime juice to write secret messages. Spies used it, prisoners used it and lovers used it.

I won’t tell you here when people started to use lemon juice to write secret messages (the answer is in the book…..), but I’ll give you a hint: it’s not when you might guess.

By the mid 17th century it was commonplace for “ladies to communicate their Amours” in secret writing as an anonymous author wrote in Rarities.

Other ordinary people could also  “order [their] private affairs with all imaginable safety and secrecy.”

So it wasn’t just the ladies that communicated their Amours, the gents were often bashful about expressing their thoughts and liked using invisible ink too.

Abraham Cowley, a royalist poet who lived amongst the intrigue and dangers of the English Civil War in the 17th century, penned a poem called “Written in the Juice of Lemon.”

Cowley was frustrated because could not see what he wrote (I have that problem too when I write invisibly), but at least he dared write the poetry precisely because he could hide it.

But his poem wasn’t just pitched at lovers. He had dark things to say about those “hypocrites” and “hereticks” that he had come across as the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria spy and cipherer and decipherer in Paris. In any case, fire lit up their despicable deeds, just as fire or heat chars lemon juice to a readable brown color.

Crowley was a famous poet in his day– as admired as Shakespeare, but later critics weren’t kind to him. Clearly, one critic didn’t understand the “written in lemon juice” poem metaphor as he claimed lemon juice wasn’t a very romantic substance because it was caustic!

If I can stick up for Cowley for a moment: the point wasn’t to pour lemon juice on your lover. The point was to write secretly in lemon juice and then warm it over fire.

In the poem Cowley waxes poetic about the way the invisible becomes visible, through heat, just as a heart can heat up. It’s like nature, when sun kisses trees and plants, buds blossom. Invisible letters also blossom when heated:

Strange power of heat! thou yet dost show

Like winter-earth, naked, or cloth’d with snow:

But as, the quickening sun approaching near,

The plants arise up by degrees;

A sudden paint adorns the trees,

And all kind Nature’s characters appear.

I don’t think that’s such a bad poem…

It’s not surprising that by the Victorian period using what they called “sympathetic ink” was quite popular. A shy, closet poet wrote a sympathetic ink poem and said he “writes the words” his love “dare not speak…in ink that can’t be seen.”

For those of you who’d like to write words you dare not speak in ink that can’t be seen, you can also try grape juice, orange juice, onion juice (better for a friend than a lover), vinegar, urine or even semen (but I won’t get raunchy here). Semen doesn’t show up with heat, but if you have a black light handy, the invisible writing should become visible.

But lovers ink got even more sophisticated and fun in romantic 18th century Paris with the discovery of cobalt chloride. Unlike milk and lemon juice, cobalt chloride appeared with heat and disappeared again when cooled. And it was readily available back then. Until recently, you could even get some of this lovers ink in a tiny bottle at the store through mail order or on the web. Pulp magazines advertised bottles of romantic ink:

“Write invisible love messages in passionate-red invisible ink which only you and your lover can make appear and disappear. Protect your love life.”

It is no wonder it began to be called “ink for the ladies.”

There must be thousands of letters written by lovers in secret ink but I’ve only found a couple of them. Please send me any developed invisible ink letters you might possess from the family attic!

 

Kristie Macrakis

Kristie Macrakis

Kristie Macrakis is professor of history, technology, and society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is a historian of science as well as espionage and the author of numerous books and articles, including Seduced by Secrets. She lives in Atlanta, GA.

YUP Director John Donatich Interviews Leo Damrosch on Jonathan Swift

DamroschJonathan Swift, although widely remembered as both an author and a public figure, remains quite enigmatic today. Leo Damrosch, author of the New York Times Notable Book of 2013, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, and Ernest Bernbaum Research Professor of Literature at Harvard University, recently discussed the man’s mysterious personal life with Yale University Press Director John Donatich on the Yale Press Podcast.

Although multiple biographies have been written about the author, Damrosch’s book reinterprets known evidence to paint a fuller portrait of the man — his works, his belief, and his personal relationships.  Damrosch explains his motivations for taking on the project, explaining,

“It seemed there was an enormous hole to fill; just trying to figure out what kind of person he was and how he related to others.”

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 Listen to the full interview on iTunesU!

Q&A With Author David Sedlak on the Future of Clean Water

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With the planet’s clean water sources strained by over-population and pollution, Yale University Press sat down with Water 4.0 author David Sedlak to talk about the future of urban water systems. For more on what we must do to protect our most precious resource, visit water4point0.com.

 

Yale University Press: In Water 4.0, you discuss the four stages of urban water solution’s history. Can you explain them for us?

David Sedlak: Whenever people congregate in big groups they need access to a water supply.  The first revolution in urban water occurred when the Romans created a complex system of dams, aqueducts, underground water pipes and sewers that could provide people with a daily allotment of water that was comparable to what we use today.  When medieval villages started growing into cities during the second half of the nineteenth century, they adopted this approach, creating bigger and better water systems in cities like Paris, London and New York.  The plentiful water supply made it possible to keep the streets free from the muck that had plagued medieval cities.   It also created a new problem by spreading disease to communities that drew their water downstream.  After a few decades of outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever, desperate engineers created drinking water treatment processes that made it possible to safely consume water from sewage-contaminated rivers.  The spread of this second revolution in urban water technology extended average life spans by almost a decade in the US.  Cities grew without worrying about the effects of water pollution until the environmental impacts of sewage discharged by cities became too obvious to ignore.  Between the 1950s and 1970s, the third revolution in urban water systems resulted in the construction of sewage treatment plants that eliminated the dead fish and noxious odors that had become commonplace downstream of cities.  As discussed in the book, a confluence of factors—including climate change, population growth and underinvestment in upkeep of pipes and treatment plants—is leading to a need to embark on a fourth revolution.

 

YUP: What were the major benefits that arose from the first three advances in the harnessing and treatment of water? Were there any drawbacks from each? 

DS: The first advance—an imported water supply and the use of water as a means of waste disposal—liberated people from the burden of having to haul and store water as well as the messy job of managing their own wastes.  Unfortunately, the dilution of feces and urine with large quantities of water made it virtually impossible to capture and reuse the nutrients locked up in the wastes.  By discharging sewage above a neighbor’s drinking water supply, the first set of innovations also spread waterborne disease to downstream communities.

The second advance—drinking water treatment—largely solved the problem of waterborne disease in developed countries, an advance that has been recognized by the US National Academy of Engineering as one of the top four most important technological advance of the twentieth century.  The main drawback of the newly created drinking water treatment system was related to a lack of knowledge about the risks to public health posed by the use of lead pipes and chlorine—two problems that many cities are still struggling with today.

Finally, the third advance—widespread construction of sewage treatment plants—helped to achieve the goal of making it possible to swim and fish in our lakes, rivers and estuaries.  Here, the main drawbacks were related to our inability to use the enthusiasm for building sewage treatment plants to create a system that assured that the plants would be maintained in the future.

 

YUP: So now that we approach the “Water 4.0” stage, where do we go from here? What responses and approaches are on offer?

DS: To get a better idea of what the future holds, we can look to the cities that are on the front lines of the struggle.  In cities where existing water supplies are unable to keep up with demand, we are seeing the traditional approach of water conservation and the development of more imported water sources being taken as far as they can go.  Some of these cities are starting to experiment with new approaches for turning water that hasn’t been seen as being fit for consumption—seawater, sewage, stormwater runoff—into drinking water.  In cities where too much water is posing problems, the tried-and-true engineering approaches of digging bigger underground drainage tunnels are being abandoned in lieu of green roofs, rain gardens and stormwater retention ponds.  The big challenge is to figure out which of the many possible approaches and specific technologies is actually practical, given financial limitations and need to maintain the reliable performance that we demand of our water systems.

 

YUP: What are some of the technology-based solutions that could be pursued?

DS: As communities struggle to address the inadequacies of their existing systems, a number of new technologies are emerging as candidates for the fourth revolution.  On the water supply side, water reuse and seawater desalination are becoming inexpensive and reliable enough to start replacing imported water supplies.  Newer technologies like urban stormwater capture and closed loop water systems in buildings have the potential to help cities break free of the need for centralized water treatment and distribution, but they are not as well developed.  Also, new technologies that employ the latest developments in information technology, wireless communication and materials science are creating opportunities to conserve water in ways that seemed impossible twenty years ago.  On the wastewater side, new technologies are creating modular sewage treatment plants that could be installed in a basement or in an unobtrusive shed in a neighborhood.  These tiny treatment plants extract the energy and nutrients in sewage and reuse the water for landscaping or non-potable applications within buildings.

 

David Sedlak. credit Peg Skorpinski

David Sedlak. credit Peg Skorpinski

YUP:  In your book, you note that cities are historically the first to both show manifestations of water pollution problems as well as find solutions. Are there cities around the world that are ahead of the curve with their water treatment and conservation? Are their methods adaptable in the U.S?

DS: Many people consider Singapore to be at the leading edge of new water technologies.  The Singaporeans certainly have made great efforts to advance water recycling, desalination and water conservation, but to me the most amazing thing about Singapore has been their success in capturing and using most of the rain that falls within the city.  If other cities around the world were to adopt Singapore’s practices of urban stormwater capture and use, it would go a long way toward solving many water supply problems.    This could also help cities avoid much of the damage caused by excess stormwater runoff.  Adopting this approach elsewhere is going to take some effort because Singapore receives a lot more rainfall than cities in places like California, Texas and Arizona where water supply concerns are greatest.

Israel is another example where progress is being made, particularly with respect to cost-effective seawater desalination.  Desalination currently accounts for almost 20% of Israel’s urban water supply, and the national plan calls for it to increase to 30% in the near future.  Cost has always been the big impediment to widespread investment in seawater desalination.  The Israelis were able to cut the costs of  this process by adopting a standardized set of designs, employing the latest energy-saving technologies and linking the plants together via the country’s regional water canal.  The development of widely adopted conventions for plant design and permitting as well as sharing the costs and benefits of desalination regionally could offer similar benefits for US cities, but we still have not resolved our concerns about the large amounts of energy consumed by the desalination process.

 

YUP: Is there any good news in the race to confront the newest wave of urban water challenges? Do we see anything particular from the entrepreneurial or research and development communities that is taking positive shape?  Or are we looking at the likelihood that another crisis will be needed to activate meaningful pursuit of new solutions?

DS: Overall, it’s a good news-bad news situation.  The good news is that the latest technological developments coupled with research and experience gained in the cities that are on the frontline of the challenge are providing us with the tools needed to meet our future urban water needs without compromising on safety and reliability.  The bad news is that our expectations that water services will always be inexpensive is discouraging investments in developing the technologies more quickly or in retooling our water systems before they reach a state of crisis.  Hopefully, by paying attention to the high price of inaction and understanding the technologies that can help to solve our problems, we will be empowered to act before change is forced upon us in a crisis.

 

YUP:  What can a concerned citizen do? Do you have any advice for them?

DS:  There are a number of things that you can do to support your urban water systems and to pave the way for change.  The easiest and most direct actions involve water conservation. Upgrading to the latest versions of water-saving appliances is a good investment that can substantially reduce water consumption while saving energy.  It is also becoming easier to reduce outdoor water use without compromising aesthetics through the use of modern irrigation controllers that fine-tune watering based upon weather and soil conditions.  You also can choose household products more wisely, with an eye to the fact that all of the chemicals that you use in and around your home have the potential to end up in a nearby river or the drinking water of your downstream neighbors.  Although water conservation and consumer choices are powerful tools, the most important thing that you can do to bring about change is to become more actively involved in the decision-making process.  By bringing knowledge of the stakes and the range of solutions to discussions with elected officials and the people in charge of planning for future investments in your water system, you can assure that the next generation of urban water will be here when it is needed.

 

YUP:  David, anything else you want to add?

DS:  Concerns about the future of urban water systems are not limited to the dry Southwest.  Increasingly, cities in the southeast, like Atlanta, Tampa and Dallas, are struggling to provide enough water for their cities in dry years.  In the future, concerns about the costs and environmental impacts of imported water coupled with growing water demands is likely to make this issue more relevant to the rest of the country.  Furthermore, water supply problems and the solutions being developed in the United States have important implications for cities facing climate change and population growth in developed and developing countries around the world.

Members of the public are often surprised when they learn about the presence of hormones, drugs and personal care products in their water supply.  As explained in this book, the presence in drinking water of low concentrations of chemicals that were flushed down the toilet should not be a surprise.  The challenge we face is to determine which, if any, of those chemicals could pose a risk to our health or the health of waters where treated sewage is discharged and to design ways to prevent the chemicals from getting there in the first place.


David L. Sedlak is the Malozemoff Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, and deputy director of the National Science Foundation’s engineering research center for Reinventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt). He is a leading authority on water technology. He lives in Berkeley, CA.