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Precious Commodity

Providing Water for America’s Cities

Martin V. Melosi

Publication Year: 2011

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. In Precious 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.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Series: History of the Urban Environment

Front Cover

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pp. v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiv

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...

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Chapter 1: “Improving” Rivers in America: From the Revolution to the Progressive Era

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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...

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Chapter 2: How Bad Theory Can Lead to Good Technology: Water Supply and Sewerage in the age of Miasmas

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pp. 54-73

This chapter grew out of research for my book The 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...

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Chapter 3: Pure and Plentiful: The Development of Modern Waterworks in the United States, 1880–2000

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pp. 57-77

This chapter was a distillation of draft sections from The Sanitary City on waterworks prepared for a special issue of Water 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...


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pp. 95-126


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pp. 127-144


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pp. 145-160


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pp. 161-197


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pp. 198-213


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pp. 214-219

Further Reading

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pp. 220-227


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pp. 228-291


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pp. 292-305

Back Cover

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p. 306-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780822977766
E-ISBN-10: 0822977761
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822961413
Print-ISBN-10: 0822961415

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: History of the Urban Environment

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Urbanization -- Environmental aspects.
  • Water use -- United States.
  • City planning -- United States.
  • Cities and towns -- United States
  • Water-supply -- United States.
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