Journalist Charles Fishman remembers the day the idea came to him to write “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water,” the subject for the community-wide reading project One Book, One Bakersfield, One Kern.
It was six years ago while he was staying at a Miami hotel. He noticed an unopened bottle of Fiji water in his room.
“Does this water really come from Fiji,” he asked himself.
And even if it does, why do Americans need to import water from 9,000 miles away?
Those questions launched a quest that took the former Washington Post reporter to the South Pacific island and challenged a lot of what he thought he knew about water.
Once in Fiji, he found that 53 percent of the people living in the country didn’t have access to safe drinking water. The irony hit him: In America, where safe drinking water is abundant, we choose to drink water from Fiji.
After filing a report on the bottled water, Fishman was inspired to do more research, which took him around the globe to Australia, also suffering through a drought; India, where access to safe drinking water is limited; and to the desert oasis of Las Vegas, which manages to make its water go a long way despite being one of the driest cities in the country.
“Once you read the book, your problems don’t seem unsolvable anymore,” Fishman said in a recent interview. “If Australia can do it in year eight of the drought, we are no different.”
The way other countries handle their water resources has convinced Fishman the United States would do well to adopt some of those policies and solutions. But he also was interested in helping spark conversation in communities like Kern.
“You have no choice. If you have big water problems, you have to solve them,” he said. “Water is one of the things that there is no substitute.”
Fishman’s message resonated with the organizers of One Book, One Bakersfield, One Kern. Under the program, the Kern County Library encourages the community to share experiences related to a single book through discussions, educational programming and entertainment. The resulting conversation is meant to enhance understanding of community diversity, while supporting literacy.
Chad Plummer, One Book project coordinator, said the project picks a book every year that is relevant to issues that Kern County is experiencing.
“Literacy in general is important to the populace. On this specific issue, we are all sort of working together to bring attention to the issue,” said Plummer.
“Water is a finite resource, and I think maybe we have outgrown our supply, but I don’t think people realize that.”
Fishman pointed to a chapter in his book about an Australian farmer who discusses what he’s done to make the water he uses worth it, useful knowledge, no doubt, for Kern County.
“In a place like Kern County, having read a book like this, you can have a much calmer conversation about why water is important to the economy, and why people make the decisions they make, and are those decisions the right decisions,” Fishman said.
To help get the conversation started, One Book is hosting several events for all age groups, from family storytimes to community book discussions, youth science experiments, and a visit and book-signing by the author.
Fishman intends to tell stories that aren’t in the book when he comes to Cal State Bakersfield’s Icardo Center on Oct. 27.
He also plans to talk about how California is handling the drought and what the state can do to improve problems associated with water scarcity.
Students from Cal State Bakersfield, Kern High School District and the Bakersfield City School District also are all reading “The Big Thirst.”
Plummer hopes the students not only enhance their literacy but develop a sense of responsibility.
The goal is to “get kids and younger people speaking in terms of consequences. For example, I could wash my car or not. I could take a 20-minute shower or not,” Plummer said.
Beyond the community read, other projects associated with the book include student art pieces, some of which will be shown at the Via Arte exhibit at The Marketplace on Oct. 15 and 16.
The Kern County Library has also teamed up with Golden Valley High School’s Theater Department for “The Big Thirst: Student Play Production” on Oct. 7 and 8.
“We’re trying to cover every possible age group and demographic just to try to get awareness and a dialogue about the situation,” Plummer said.
Plummer hopes that even younger readers will join the conversation. For students in kindergarten through second grade, he recommends “One Well: The Story of Water” by Rochelle Strass, and for third- through fifth-graders, he suggests “All the Water in the World” by George Ella Lyon. For middle-schoolers, he recommends “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park.
“The Big Thirst” is available at Russo’s Books or Barnes & Noble, and any of the Kern County Library branches.
“We’ve taken [water] for granted,” said Plummer. “It’s not always going to be around. We are going to have to rethink that.”