Groundwater for the 21st Century: A primer for Citizens of Planet Earth

On returning from the Christmas and New Year break, I found a package on my desk from a publisher in the US. Inside was a copy of “Groundwater for the 21st: A Primer for Citizens of Planet Earth” by Dr John A. Connors.  Full disclosure: they asked for a review and a blog post in return.  As RWSN is all about promoting better understanding and use of groundwater, I don’t see a problem with this, so here we go:

My first question is why does this book exist? Groundwater is a critically important resource and one that is poorly understood. When I started my career as a young water resources officer in the UK, I was constantly amazed that even quite learned folk imagined great caverns and rivers underground.  Yes, you do get pretty, karstic limestone caves full of water, but that is a tiny fraction of the world’s groundwater resource.
Groundwater in the 21st Century claims to fill the gap between maths-heavy text books and narrative-driven popular science books. At over 600 pages, it is hardly a concise primer: for that I would recommend: Introducing Groundwater” by Michael Price. However, while long it is written is an easy, accessible style.  The book is also well structured and makes few knowledge assumptions of the reader: this must have been tough for the author because the ‘curse of knowledge’ often means that a writer can sometimes leave the audience behind through fear of being seen as patronising (I am frequently guilty of this).
Because the book is well structured I found it easy to dip into and to navigate around. The chapters cover the basics of the properties of water and just why it is such an incredible substance. Even for those who work on this topic everyday, it is a worthwhile reminder:
1. Introduction
2. Geology
3. The Hydrologic Cycle
4. Surface Water
5. Vadose Water
6. Phreatic Water
7. Wells
8. Aquifers and Hydrogeologic Regions
9. Groundwater Chemistry
10. Groundwater Pollution
11. Applied Hydrogeology
12. Contemporary Groundwater Supply Issues
13. Facing the Challenge
14. Perspectives on Tomorrow
As well as being clear and readable, it also goes beyond the the text-book world of the hydrological cycle and porosity values and also talks about the challenges facing the modern hydrogeologist and the skills needed to be effective.  Connors does his best to help the reader navigate through the plethora of technical terms – no mean feat. However, even with the help that the author provides, I wonder who much the technical terms are a barrier to a more lay audience.
So what about the downsides:
  • A mention or section of handpumps would have been nice, but that’s my predictable Skat bias!
  • Being a US book by a US author there is an understandable US-bias, but not over-powering and the last couple of chapters take a global view.
  • Despite the author’s claim that there is a gap between text book and popular science book, I’m not convinced that this book will reach its target audience because of its size and the really dated cover photography, typography and layout. If this book is for the 21st century reader then it should look like it is from 2014 not 1974.  It looks really, really old fashioned. Which is a shame, because the content is broadly up to date with the issues that it deals with, such as climate change and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation.
  • Inside, the diagrams are clear and functional, but are perhaps too text booky. The introduction says that it isn’t a text book so why does it look like one?
  • For those in developing country contexts, the price of the book could be a barrier (USD 59.95 for the hardcover, USD39.95 for the paperback, but discounts are available from retailers).
Overall, the content and writing style of this book is excellent and was a helpful revision for me on core hydrological principles and broadened my understanding of areas that I am less familiar with. However, it is let down badly by how it is presented and this is a shame, because i think it will put off readers who would otherwise enjoy it and find it useful.  I will certainly keep this copy close to hand.
My recommendation to the publisher is:
  1. employ a good graphic designer and redo the cover and some of the illustrations
  2. consider publishing some of the chapters as individual publications, or e-books: making them more bite size is more likely to appeal to the busy professional who, of the get the book, is most likely to put on the “that looks interesting, must get around to reading” pile. Yes, I’m sure that you have one of those too..
“Groundwater for the 21st: A Primer for Citizens of Planet Earth” by Dr John A. Connors
Hardback recommended price: USD 59.95
Paperback recommended price: USD 39.95

624 pages
Publisher: The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company; Orignial edition (June 3, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1935778102
ISBN-13: 978-1935778103

Author: SGF

Lover of learning. Beauty is found in the mysterious.

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