Too Many People, Too Little Water (peak water)

The news of droughts in the West this year has surely escaped none living in the US…and with global warming forecast to increase severity of droughts, and population continuing to grow, we need to take a long, hard look at water usage in this country.  The title of the video below, ‘The Drying of America: Too Many People, Too Little Water’ sums it up extremely well.  So what can the average citizen do?  Well, you can start with reducing household water consumption – replace lawns with xeriscaping and take shorter showers to begin with.  That will be a great start…though water consumption of food production will need to be improved, as well as energy production.  For example, powering a 60W incandescent lightbulb for a year requires 3,000-6,300 gallons of water (source).  Things like fracking put additional strains on an already short water supply.  So in summary…things are looking bleak, and you can expect this issue to only get worse in coming years.  Don’t be an idiot and plant a new grass lawn!

Peak Stuff

Until we learn to live more sustainable lifestyles, we’re going to be faced with more ‘peak stuff’, where demand for a particular resource exceeds supply.  Fast Company has a nice article on this subject if you want to read more.  One example is clean water.  More people equals greater demand, but resources are diminishing as glaciers melt and some aquifers are depleted.  Food is another one, though the system is so wasteful (in this country at least) that I’m optimistic we can make some big improvements there.  Or at the least, stop burning food (turning corn into ethanol to power cars).

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!

Threatened water supply

There are a couple interesting threats to the security of our future water supply.  The first involves depletion of groundwater for agricultural uses.  Already, we’re using it at an unsustainable rate, and the future viability of irrigated agriculture is, at this point, somewhat uncertain in some areas.  However, as this article points out, there’s more that can be done using existing technology to decrease water usage, like more efficient watering methods (drip irrigation, for example) and construction of more water storage systems.  That takes money though, either with higher food prices, and/or government infrastructure investment.  In the current political and economic climate, the later is unlikely, so expect higher food prices to hit first before public pressure creates the political will to improve the infrastructure.

The second development that is going to place increasing demands on our water supply is electricity, strangely enough.  As this article explains, most modern power plants require large amounts of water in order to cool them.  Well, the power plants that aren’t using renewable energy like solar or wind, that is.

Then of course, there’s fracking, which not only pollutes the groundwater, but uses a lot of water as a primary ingredient in the fracturing fluid that’s pumped underground.  Sort of a double-whammy there.

So what does this all mean?  It means that like many other things, we’re nearing Peak Water, where the supply of water will be less than the demand.  Or rather, the supply of clean, drinkable water.  We’ll likely be forced to turn to more expensive filtering methods to increase the drinking water supply, and for coastal communities, it’s hard to imagine a world without desalination being key.  Costs will increase.

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