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Water: A Natural History

The L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for Nonfiction Finalist; Library Journal’s Best Science Books for General Readers

"What a fresh and vital book this is, one that will change the terms of many debates. Bring back the beaver, bring back the prairie dog, and with them will come the water 'clear as dew' that once distinguished this continent.'--Bill McKibben

"This book is a real eye-opener--and also a real pleasure to read. That's a rare combination."--Noel Perrin

“This book’s great virtue is the ease with which it explains how water works its way through North America. [Outwater’s] tone is attractively specific: stylish in its own directness, and realistic in its proposal.”   

The New Yorker


“Far from being a dry, pedantic text, this book is readable. In fact, it’s fun. It’s interesting, and it doesn’t take a degree in … engineering from MIT—which the author has—to understand what she’s saying.”   Boston Herald


“This thought-provoking book belongs in all environmental collections, academic and public.”         Library Journal, chosen as one of the “Best Science and Technology Books of 1996”

From Publishers Weekly

A generation after the Clean Water Act was passed, one third of our waters are still polluted, according to the author, and only 6% of contamination is caused by industry. Environmental engineer Outwater, who managed scum and sludge removal in the Boston Harbor cleanup, reaches back into our history to chart the changes in our waters. Once, a tenth of the total land area was beaver-built wetland; the beaver's decline caused the first major shift in the nation's water cycle. The depressions buffalo made on the ground and the holes dug by prairie dogs collected rain and runoff that seeped down to the water table; our waterways have been transformed by the loss of these keystone species. Outwater looks at grasslands and forests, artificial waterways, agriculture, aqueducts and toilet bowls, sewers and sludge (she gives a guided tour of a waste-treatment plant). She makes a strong case for restoring natural systems to public lands?repopulating beaver, bison and prairie dogs. This book is a valuable addition to environmental literature and to our understanding of water. 

From Booklist

Outwater, an environmental engineer, wrote this surprising, engagingly lucid treatise after participating in the Boston Harbor cleanup and discovering that the sources of water pollution are not as simple as we once believed. Tainted water continues to be a problem even though industries no longer dump massive quantities of toxic chemicals directly into lakes and rivers. What scientists have found is that polluted water is the result of extensive changes to the natural water cycle, changes associated with the habitat-destroying activities of people. Outwater begins her eye-opening explanation by describing the beneficial effects that beavers and prairie dogs, North America's natural hydrologists, have on the water cycle, then chronicles what went wrong after those species were brought to the brink of extinction, crises related to deforestation and the paving over and plowing under of wetlands and grasslands. If water is "the blood of the land--always in motion," then everything that impedes its cleansing flow is a problem and fair game for environmentalists. Donna Seaman 

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