The best books about how humanity fouled the waters and why we need wetlands to help clean it up

Sharon Levy Author Of The Marsh Builders: The Fight for Clean Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife
By Sharon Levy

Who am I?

I fell in love with the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary thirty years ago, when I first moved to town. At the time, I was working as a field biologist, and I loved to hang out at the marsh and birdwatch—I’d see everything from pelicans to peregrine falcons. Later I shifted from field biology to science writing, and some of my first articles were about how the Arcata Marsh serves both as a wildlife habitat and a means of treating the city’s sewage. I learned about the grassroots movement that created the marsh, and the global history of wetlands loss. I’ve been hooked on wetlands ever since.


I wrote...

The Marsh Builders: The Fight for Clean Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

By Sharon Levy,

Book cover of The Marsh Builders: The Fight for Clean Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

What is my book about?

The majority of the original wetlands in the US have vanished, transformed into farm fields, or buried under city streets. The Marsh Builders delves into the intertwined histories of wetlands loss and water pollution. 

The book’s springboard is the tale of a citizen uprising in Humboldt County, California, which led to the creation of one of the first US wetlands designed to treat city sewage. The book explores the global roots of this local story: the cholera epidemics that plagued 19th-century Europe; the researchers who invented modern sewage treatment after bumbling across the insight that microbes break down contaminants in water; the discovery that wetlands act as powerful filters for the pollution unleashed by modern humanity.

The books I picked & why

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The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

By Michael Grunwald,

Book cover of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

Why this book?

During research for my book, I visited manmade wetlands in south Florida, built to filter farm runoff from the water before it flows into Everglades National Park. These constructed wetlands are thick with alligators, spoonbills, storks, hawks, and other wildlife—but they’re just an echo of the surviving Glades. Now among the most cherished natural areas on Earth, in the settlement era the Everglades was written off as wasted space. Early in the 20th century the northern half of the Everglades was drained and turned into sugar fields. Today polluted runoff from those farms threatens the surviving remnants of the Everglades ecosystem. 

Grunwald’s book shows the human quirks and greed that drove the Everglades’ destruction, and that sometimes get in the way of its restoration.


The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

By Steven Johnson,

Book cover of The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Why this book?

Johnson’s exploration of a public health crisis and science in the making was one of the references I used in writing my own book. In August 1854, hundreds of people in the impoverished Golden Square neighborhood of London fell violently ill. Many died. By mapping the movements of the victims, Dr. John Snow traced the source of the infection to the Broad Street pump, a public water source that had been contaminated with Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera. Johnson’s account shows how a normally benign microbe was rendered deadly in a crowded mass of people who ended up drinking their own sewage—at a time before the existence of microbes was known. 


The Great Stink

By Clare Clark,

Book cover of The Great Stink

Why this book?

While researching my book, I learned about the sewers of Victorian London. The hideous load of pollution they carried stank unbearably, caused epidemics, and later inspired the invention of modern sewage treatment. This mystery novel takes us into the dank hell of those sewers. A fictional war veteran named William May roams this subterranean world as a surveyor for engineer Joseph Bazalgette, a real-life figure responsible for redesigning London’s sewer system and saving thousands of lives. Reading this novel is as close as one can get to that time and place.


Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge

By Erica Gies,

Book cover of Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge

Why this book?

This is a book I would love to have researched and written myself. Gies moves beyond my own book’s story of constructed wetland projects to report on the many other ways people are restoring the natural functions of water: breaking dams, busting apart concretized stream channels. Allowing water to run slow through wetlands and the twisty course of restored natural channels can revive fish and wildlife populations, reduce pollution and flooding, and help sustain people. From the marshes of Iraq to the ancient irrigation channels of Peru, this book will change the way you understand water.


Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

By Ben Goldfarb,

Book cover of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Why this book?

Long before I learned anything about their ecology, I was fascinated by beavers and their flair for building. Beaver dams change the courses of streams and create habitat for willows, fish, frogs, songbirds, even elk and wolves. Goldfarb’s book tells the story of the beavers’ destruction by fur hunters, the way their loss changed the way water flowed through all of North America, and the ways people are working to bring them back.


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