Growing strain on our water supply

With an increasing population tapping depleting aquifers, much of this country (and the world) is on an unsustainable path that is going to lead to water shortages at some point in our lifetimes.  We will adapt, it’s what we’re good at, but we need to be aware of how water is being used in our lives to know what to change.  I’ve seen a few topics in the news lately that might not be obvious water hogs.

The first is fracking, for which the debate seems to focus on threats to our water supply, caused by leaking fracking fluids which threatens our groundwater supplies.  While that’s being debated endlessly, there’s another water issue being overlooked.  That is, the water that is used by the fracking process.  According to Frack Free Colorado, each well requires 2-8 million gallons of water to create, and may require additional water over its lifetime if it needs to be re-fracked.

Biofuel is talked about as one solution to our energy problems, providing both a local fuel source, and a lower carbon liquid fuel option.  Well, notice that word, ‘liquid’?  You guessed it, biofuel production uses large amounts of water.  The world consumes about 32 billion barrels of oil per year…that’s about 1.34 trillion gallons.  One gallon of biofuel takes about 3.25 gallons of water to produce…the math just doesn’t add up here.  When water shortages occur, the priority will have to be water for people and crops…there just won’t be enough water left to use for fracking or biofuel production.

Lastly, there’s the issue of groundwater pollution…which isn’t something most people really think about.  However, check out the EPA’s How’s My Waterway website to get the scoop on water quality of streams and rivers near you.  It’ll tell you about water tests for metals, pathogens, pesticides, etc.  You might be surprised by what you find…I know I was!

Peak Biofuel?

I’d often considered biofuel to be an interesting development, one that could hopefully replace fossil fuels, with no real downside (though not exactly carbon neutral).  However, I came across an interesting article talking about how biofuels, at least as currently envisioned, require phosphorus for growth.  Meaning, we now face a ‘peak biofuel’ situation, or rather, ‘peak phosphorus’, where biofuel production capacity can be tied to limits on phosphorus production!  Thus, while still worth pursuing, we need to be a bit more realistic in our expectations of how widely adopted biofuels can ever become.  You can read the whole article here.

The upside to peak plastic?

Peak Plastic is the idea that the supply of plastic (which is limited by oil, for the most part) will be less than the demand…and in all likelihood, this will happen within our generation.  I came across an interesting view on this at BoingBoing…that is, when plastic prices get high enough, there may be value in digging up the vast amounts of plastic buried in landfills and recycling that.  Mining raw materials, in essence.  Since plastic takes a very, very long time to decompose, it’s not as far-fetched as it may sound.  There are still advanced engineering plastics that need to be made from raw materials (polycarbonate, ultem, etc), but for many consumer applications, recycled commodity plastics may be perfectly suitable.

Peak Water – aquifer depletion

Not exactly news, but some more warning signs about depletion of underground water supplies in this article at Scientific American.  The basic problem is that agricultural demands are depleting the aquifers and eventually we won’t be able to rely on them for food production.  The good news is that around 80% of the world’s aquifers are being managed sustainably, but that 20% that’s not are critical to food production.  Combine that with global warming and an increasing planetary population, and it seems we have a serious problem looming.

One other bit of bad news…it apparently takes around 140 liters of water to grow the beans for a single cup of coffee!  Crops like that, which can be considered ‘luxury’ crops, will soon be forced aside to make room for the staples we need to survive.  Not quite time to sell your Starbucks stock perhaps, but I wouldn’t consider that a good long term investment…

Peak coal – costs are rising

Coal has long been considered ‘cheap electricity’…nothing could really compete with it, cost-wise.  While that still may be the case, we’re really, really close to the point of ‘peak coal’, where supply cannot meet demand.  More specifically though, it’s a problem of ‘cheap’ supply.  There’s still a lot of coal out there, but it’s far away from the population centers that need it.  It’s gotten bad enough that the idea of shipping coal from the US to China is even being taken seriously.  That transportation cost adds to the cost of the coal, so much so that in some places, like India, investments strategies are shifting from coal to wind and solar energy projects.  Transportation costs, fueled by oil, will only rise as we near Peak Oil as well.  The US will have no choice but to follow this shift away from coal, the question is, though I fear that shift will happen too late to prevent significant global warming.

Read more over at if you’re interested.

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