Podcast

Jack Keller: Understanding Peak Water

Friday, December 16, 2011, 11:17 PM

"A very, very large amount of our total food production is depending on a diminishing supply of water," remarks Jack Keller, one of our own regulars here in the CM.com community and an accomplished world expert on water management.

Similar to oil and other key natural resources that are mined and consumed, water is subject to the same exponential trends. Both surface supply and underground fossil stores of clean water are depleting at alarming rates, and the energy and economic costs of extraction are swiftly increasing.

Water is our most precious natural resource (well, perhaps after oxygen). Advances in irrigation in the past century ushered in tremendous prosperity (the "green revolution"), particularly in food production, power generation, and a dramatic increase in the supportable populations for vast regions of land. If the water supply in future years dwindles to less than today's, those societal gains are going to have to retreat to some extent.

Jack sees us as "nearing the end of our string" in terms of the efficiencies new technologies can bring to water management. The story that's going to matter more is conservation how well we use what we have left.

The good news is, he remains optimistic that a sustainable state can be reached. But getting there will require adopting very different habits towards water than we do today. And unfortunately, the bad news is that Jack has little confidence our political leaders have any real plan to deal with the core issues. Meaning, it will take a national water crisis occurring to force us to sufficiently focus on developing the right kind of long-term solutions.

For those who similarly predict a much-higher future value for water than we see today, Jack shared his thoughts:

Investing in water is kind of a messy and difficult thing, in my view. I personally tried to figure out how to invest in water and I really am not quite sure how to do it.

The only way that I know to directly own water because water is a property, and usually it is tied to land is to own irrigated land that has water rights. A city has water rights, but that is usually already in the public domain if it is a city water right. The one way to own water directly, like owning an oil patch, is to own a piece of agriculture land with a water right on it.

The next thing is to approach it as mining. Look to obtain the right to take water out of the ground, like mining.

The next thing you could own is you could own things that move the water, like pumps and pipes. So you could invest in water infrastructure hardware. That includes both from the domestic side all the stuff that goes to making municipal city urban water systems, and from the farm side, the people that make irrigation equipment the infrastructure, the hardware for using and moving water. 

So what should we do as we look to the uncertain future of our water supplies?

Shift from consumption to stewardship, advises Jack. It means going from taking water for granted to thinking much more carefully about it: understanding that the system itself is not just the water we each personally use, but learning where it's from, where it goes, and the effects of irrigation, drainage, and evapo-transpiration throughout the usage cycle. It's a complex system that will require much more conscientious management if we want to avoid painful adjustments in the future.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Jack Keller (runtime 48m:39s): 

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Dr. Keller has a unique blend of engineering experiences that include teaching, research, extension, and consulting. He is a nationally and internationally recognized expert in the design, implementation, and management of irrigation systems. He is currently involved in consulting activities related to: efficient irrigated agricultural development; river basin water management and conservation planning; irrigation water monitoring, verification, and conservation planning; and developing efficient low-cost irrigation technologies for small farms.

He is founder and presently Chief Executive Officer of Keller Bliesner Engineering LLC. He is also Professor Emeritus in the Biological and Irrigation Engineering Department at Utah State University, where he was Department Head between 1980 and 1986. Prior to becoming a professor at Utah State University in 1960, he was the Chief Irrigation Engineer in charge of product development for W.R. Ames Company, a leading U.S. manufacturer of irrigation equipment.


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14 Comments

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
Status: Diamond Member (Online)
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Aquatic Ape

If you decide to bug out to a desert retreat you might consider the Maxwell Whisson water generator. The disadvantage is that it requires phase change refridgerent.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Gf0krn99Y20

Video.

I am reminded that we are an aquatic ape. Our kidneys are profligate.

AWR's picture
AWR
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Posts: 33
Fresh Water

I recommend studying this subject, starting with vast amounts of publicly available information on the internet.  Also, read "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, & Civilization" by Steven Soloman.  Fresh water shortages are one of the least talked about yet most consequential issues facing our lives (the "3 Es") today.  I've researched this topic extensively and posted about it once or twice on other forums.  Here are some thoughts I shared there:

In the developed world where freshwater is either subsidized or abundant, "peak water" talk is generally dismissed with the waive of a hand. Meanwhile, the facts are painting a scary picture.

Less than 1% of earth’s water is fresh and not in the form of a glacier or ice cap. Within this 1%, most of the freshwater lies in underground aquifers. Surprisingly, only 6/1,000 of 1% of world’s total water is held in rivers and streams. Currently 1.1 billion people – nearly one-fifth of the global population – lack access to at least one gallon per day of fresh drinking water. Furthermore, 2.6 billion people – nearly two-fifths of the global population – don’t have access to the 6 gallons needed daily for basic sanitation. Half of the world's hospital beds are filled with people suffering from water related illnesses.  2.2 million people in developing countries die every year from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene.  Over the past two centuries, freshwater usage has grown twice as fast as the population, and this trend is expected to continue. The consequences of future freshwater scarcity will likely lead to large-scale famine, health problems, and a high likelihood of human conflict. The United Nations reports that the world’s population will increase from over 6 billion today to roughly 9 billion by the year 2050, and that freshwater demand will increase at an even greater rate due to improved standards of living and a corresponding increase in water consumption. 

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa outgrew their internal water resources decades ago. And the two countries that are widely expected to be economic superpowers throughout this century, China and India, both have serious freshwater problems. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of the freshwater, and Indian has 17% of the world’s population but onlly 4% of the freshwater.

Agriculture is the single largest user of water. It is estimated that 69% of worldwide water use is for irrigation, with 15-35% of irrigation withdrawals being unsustainable. In many of the water-starved developing nations that are expecting above-average population growth in the future, irrigation accounts for over 90% of freshwater withdrawals. After agriculture, electricity generation and oil & gas production/refining are the two largest users of water. Freshwater shortages will exacerbate energy shortages, especially with unconventional drilling being so dependent on it. Water is too heavy and is required in such vast quantities that transportation over long distances is not feasible. So, once freshwater sources are depleted in a prolific agricultural or energy producing area, it could effectively choke off future production and lead to their respective shortages, ultimately limiting population growth and fostering problems among neighbors.

In 1995 about 31% of all people were living under severe water stress. By 2025, it is estimated that about two-thirds of the world’s population will live in areas facing moderate to severe water stress. The areas most affected by water shortages are those in arid regions that suffer constraints from either an economical standpoint (freshwater is too costly to obtain) or from a physical one (freshwater is not present). 

The trickle-down effects of water are at least on par with oil and in may cases far worse. Oil has some substitutes and, although it will be painful and impose limitations, can be weaned with significant lifestyle changes. No such luck with water.

Large-scale desalination is a feasable solution in some parts of the world. Water is a resource where improving technologies can eventually solve much of the problem even in the face of exponential population growth. Like oil, however, there will be unavoidable short- to intermediate-term shortages in many parts of the world.  Over half of the earth’s population lives within 60 miles of coast lines. Densely populated water-stressed regions that are poor, deep in the interior of a continent, and/or at high elevation will most likely need to search for another solution because the costs of transporting desalinated water over long distances will be high. Social and economic limitations will, unfortunately, prohibit desalination plants from becoming a possible solution for many of the poorest and most arid regions of the world – precisely the regions that need it the most. But for cities on the coast, desalination is an untapped and unlimited fresh water source.

funglestrumpet's picture
funglestrumpet
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Joined: Jan 29 2011
Posts: 23
Water supply in a changing climate

I am not American, so I find the whole climate change debate that takes place in America somewhat ridiculous. This site goes into great detail about how to survive the next twenty years, yet seems remarkably ill-informed about what the climate is going to be like in the future. When 97% of the world's climate scientists agree that we are in trouble and need to act fast, or future generations - our grandchildren and great grandchildren - are likely to suffer enormous hardships, then act fast is what we should do and to hell with playing silly political games. Is sticking to a political ideology worth doing harm to our descendents? Sometimes I think that the majority of Americans are more worried about themselves than anyone else, including future members of their own family. I once thought that Sarah Palin was in a minority, but now I am not so sure.

While America is slowly losing its supremacy in world affairs, it is at this moment the lead nation. The problem is it seems to want to lead from the back as far as climate change is concerned. Go to skepticalscience.com and begin to study the subject. That site is run by a team of very concerned and very knowledgeable people who are doing their best to provide good information on which people can decide how to respond to the threat it poses. It won't matter a fig how much gold you have or how far off the grid you are if we manage to get the sort of temperatures that are likely if we as a species continues to act in such an irresponsible fashion. Future generations will point to the knowledge that we have and wonder why on earth we did not act. In much the same way we look back on the anti-smoking campaign and wonder why we took so long to act. Funny thing is that the same agencies employed by the tobacco industry to put up the smoke and mirrors on the science of smoking are now employed by the fossil fuel lobby to do the same about climate change.

Its time to wake up.

AWR's picture
AWR
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Posts: 33
 funglestrumpet,I

funglestrumpet,

I certainly agree that climate change is not being taken seriously by politicians.  However, let me try to explain why it is not as big of a problem as some people believe.  Looking at reports (IPCC etc) that try to predict carbon dioxide emissions, they project an alarming increase in those emissions but fail to ask where those carbons will come from.  It has a striking parallel with the EIA reports that until recently assumed liquid fuel supplies would continue growing just because demand was predicted to grow.  So, the big three sources of carbon emissions are oil, natural gas, and of course coal.  As I'm sure you are aware, oil has peaked, coal is within ~15 years of peaking, and natural gas -- although it is a carbon emitter -- is by far the "cleanest" in terms of emissions.  The peaking of oil and coal will necessarily mean a peaking of carbon emissions...all within 15 years.  Since carbon emissions will decline each year after the peak, then the atmosphere will never hit the alarming concentrations predicted by all of the "climate change" reports/scientists.

As Chris Martensen has said before, there is a failure for economists to consider the other two "Es".  I would posit that climate change scientists also fail to consider the Es of energy and economy.  These professions need to develop the "latticework of mental models" aspoused by Charlie Munger.  The world could make great strides if more people developed a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving.

Spending money and resources on "solving" the climate change problem is ill-advised and would be better directed at solving the liquids fuel/transportation/infrastructure problem and ultimately the extremely high consequence directives outlined by CM.

Climate change concerns will be inversely proportional to energy concerns.  Don't worry about the impact of carbon emissions on future generations.  I would anticipate that their atmosphere will be superior to ours.

FNKRoue's picture
FNKRoue
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Posts: 36
Air Cooling Power Generation

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/cooling_power_plants_inf121.html

Hardly any US generating capacity uses dry cooling, and in the UK it has been ruled out as impractical and unreliable (in hot weather) for new nuclear plants.  A 2009 US DOE study says they are three to four times more expensive than a recirculating wet cooling system.  All US new plant licence applications have rejected dry cooling as infeasible for the site or unacceptable because of lost electrical generating efficiency and significantly higher capital and operating costs. There are also safety implications relating to removal of decay heat after an emergency shutdown with loss of power. It is unlikely that large nuclear plants will adopt dry cooling in the foreseeable future.

Both types of dry cooling involve greater cost for the cooling set-up and are much less efficient than wet cooling towers using the physics of evaporation[12] since the only cooling is by relatively inefficient heat transfer from steam or water to air via metal fins, not by evaporation.  In a hot climate the ambient air temperature may be 40 degrees C, which severely limits the cooling potential compared with a wet bulb temperature of maybe 20ºC which defines the potential for a wet system.  However, if dry systems are retrofitted, the wet system is still available for hot weather.

Australian projected figures for coal*  show a 32% drop in thermal efficiency for air cooling versus water, eg from 33% to 31%.

* In OECD Projected Costs of Generating Electricity 2010, Tables 3.3. 

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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Posts: 2500
The Methane bomb.

Climate change concerns will be inversely proportional to energy concerns.  Don't worry about the impact of carbon emissions on future generations.  I would anticipate that their atmosphere will be superior to ours.

Methane held in Clathratesare in that state by pressure and cold. Kilometer wide fountains of methane are erupting as I type these words.

Methane is a twenty times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2

A bomb is not a linear event, neither is global warming.

Venus used to have oceans.

Little children should not tamper with munitions.

Mark_BC's picture
Mark_BC
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Posts: 250
I think this site purposely

I think this site purposely veers away from discussion of two political hot potatoes -- global warming, and ecological carrying capacity. I can understand why since in the current political environment of North America, talking abou these issues would instantly alienate a lot of potential readers who believe AGW and talk of our imminent Malthusian collapse to be part of a grand socialist conspiracy.

And as mentioned above, if we deal with Peak Oil then by definition we (theoretically) also deal with carbon emissions. It's easier to hit people with the fact that they are about to lose most of their wealth over the next few yers due to Peak Oil than to appeal to their sense of duty towards future generations when they don't trust the source of that information.

AWR, desalination requires huge energy inputs. I don't think it will be feasible on any large scale until the energy predicamant is fixed, which seems unlikely. I highly doubt the future atmosphere will be "superior" to ours. The issue is twofold -- one, we will lose most of our coastal real estate, and two, agriculture will be impacted by shifting climate.

And the problem with assuming that GHG emissions wil be reduced when we run out of fossil fuels fails to account for EROEI. When the EROEI of "producing" more oil goes down to 1.5, where do you think all the energy is going to come from to do that? From coal and natural gas. And from what I understand, there is still quite a lot of coal and gas, so if anything emissions are going to go through the roof until we have absolutely no fossil fuels left anywhere to burn.

Here is a good talk addressing AGW denialism, from a former AGW denialist:

AWR's picture
AWR
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Posts: 33
 AWR...I highly doubt the

 AWR...I highly doubt the future atmosphere will be "superior" to ours. The issue is twofold -- one, we will lose most of our coastal real estate, and two, agriculture will be impacted by shifting climate.

This is true only if carbon concentrations in the atmosphere reach the danger levels that scientists are predicting, which won't occur due to peak oil and peak coal.

And the problem with assuming that GHG emissions wil be reduced when we run out of fossil fuels fails to account for EROEI. When the EROEI of "producing" more oil goes down to 1.5, where do you think all the energy is going to come from to do that? From coal and natural gas. And from what I understand, there is still quite a lot of coal and gas, so if anything emissions are going to go through the roof until we have absolutely no fossil fuels left anywhere to burn.

You cannot omit the EROEI on coal, which is also declining precipitously.  The quality of coal is declining and peak coal (google it for some good info) is now in the foreseeable future despite the continue government misspeak about 200 years supply etc.  You are correct that natural gas use is likely to continue ramping up but it's lower emissions will be more than offset by the declines in usage of oil and coal.

Not saying global warming isn't real, just that spending scarce resources to combat it isn't ideal especially when mother nature will forcefully reverse its course in a few short years.

maceves's picture
maceves
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Posts: 279
south Georgia

I know all the predictions are that the southeast U.S. will be pretty wet and we won't need to worry about water.  Where I live I have lakes, rivers and canals all over the place; which is pretty cool since I like to kayak.

On one of my kayak expeditions south of Macon it was pointed out to me that since we have been in this dought with triple digit temperatures there has not been enough ground water to irrigate the cotton fields.  So the aquafer is being pumped.  There were large pumps and water sprayers just like you see in the west but not normally in the southeast.    They were pumping water from any place they could get it.

Whatever you think about climate change, it is observable here that there is hotter weather and less rain.  Water management may be a major issue moving forward---more dams and water collection and more equitable distribution.

As a side note, I've been out  cleaning up the canals and local lake---you would be surprised by what I rake up.  Senseless contamination and pollution by the remaining manufacturers have rendered the water unsuitable for swimming and the fish dangerous to eat  on a regular basis.  It looks different when you are on the water.

My two cents--respect the water and keep it clean.  If you have a local Riverkeeper catch up with them and find out what they are up to.  They might need vounteers.

Mark_BC's picture
Mark_BC
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AWR wrote: You cannot omit

AWR wrote:

You cannot omit the EROEI on coal, which is also declining precipitously.  The quality of coal is declining and peak coal (google it for some good info) is now in the foreseeable future despite the continue government misspeak about 200 years supply etc.  You are correct that natural gas use is likely to continue ramping up but it's lower emissions will be more than offset by the declines in usage of oil and coal.

That's a good question, maybe one that could be addressed in future on this site -- how much coal and gas is left, as the only fossil fuel alternatives to oil?

Stan Robertson's picture
Stan Robertson
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Arthur Robey wrote:Methane

Arthur Robey wrote:
Methane held in

Clathrates

are in that state by pressure and cold. Kilometer wide fountains of methane are erupting as I type these words. Methane is a twenty times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2

A bomb is not a linear event, neither is global warming.

And what do suppose that methane was doing in the medieval warming period when the earth was warmer than at present?

StephenBach's picture
StephenBach
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Posts: 2
water solutions

Check out this

and then investigate permaculture principles as an approach in the American West to a better water future.

Hladini's picture
Hladini
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Posts: 59
water depletion remedy

First, I would like to thank Chris Martenson for creating the Crash Course and making it available free to the public.  I'm from Gainesville, FL and a group of us involved in the Transition Initiative watched the film as part of an awareness raising event.  I have personally watched the long version once and the short version about 5 times. 

In fact, when my adult children ask me for a favor, my favor in return is that he or she watches the Crash Course!

The Crash Course answers the question: "Why Transition?"  The Transition Initiative (TI), which is now global with over 1000 official transition towns, is a community's effort to build resilience when systems (economic/energy) collapse.  The TI works to develop local businesses, local food production, local currencies, local energy sources, eco-villages, local waste disposal, and a grand re-skilling of the populace.

What Mr. Martenson has done is to raise awareness of our current predicaments, which is a critical foundation to Transitioning.  What TI does is empower people to take action by taking responsibility for their own oil foot print and enabling people to make the necessary adjustments in their own lives.

The greatest step a people could make to save our dwindling water supplies is to become vegetarians.  The meat industry is a sucking vortex of water consumption and waste.  In the film "Eating" I learned that vegetarians use about 109 gallons of water per day.  Adding just one daily hamburger to your diet increases your water consumption to over 3000 gallons per  day.  Now put that usage into an exponential growth chart!

Most of the U.S. water consumption is for watering crops fed to animals raised for consumption.  Now we have literally billions of animals being raised for slaughter each year, and those billions of animals pass excrement several times a day, and there are NO laws or regs requiring sewage treatment for the billions, maybe trillions? of pounds of excrement, and the excrement is running off into streams, rivers, aquafers, farms, and oceans.

We have literal DEAD ZONES, where nothing lives, in all of our waterways and oceans because of this untreated waste pouring into our fragile water systems.  We also have massive recalls of not only meats, fish and eggs but of lettuce, strawberries, spinach and apples due to this untreated run off.  We also have an epidemic of anti-biotic resistant organisms because of the massive meds pumped into our farm animals because of the filthy living conditions and abysmal health of these animals.

Personally, I have not eaten meat, fish or eggs for the last 28 years, and I have raised four children as vegetarians, and my children are raising their children as vegetarians.  How much water has our family saved the planet?

3000 gallons x 365 days  x 28 years x 1 (me).

3000 gallons x 365 days x 32 yrs  x 30 yrs, x 29 yrs, x 23 yrs,  x 1 yr, x 4 yrs, x6 yrs, x7 yrs, x9 yrs, x9 yrs, x13 yrs. (kids and grandkids)

NOW THAT'S AN EXPONENTIAL GROWTH CHART! 

So the bottom line is that if each of us stops eating meat, we would save an exponential amount of water and over time our individual committment will count to stem the tide of water depletion.

Another factor to consider is methane.  Billions of animals raised for slaughter release methane in the form of burps, farts and waste.  The bad thing about methane is it creates hotter "greenhouse" gasses, the good thing about methane is that it circulates out of the atmosphere much quicker than CO2 gas.  So, this is another reason to go vegetarian - you will contribute less to the methane gas problem.

The Transition Initiative empowers people to make changes in their own behavior.  We, the consumers, got us into this predicament, and we, the consumers, will have to take action NOW in order to mold our own, hopefully more favorable, outcomes.

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Wendy S. Delmater
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Posts: 1579
GRACE Data Spreads Awareness of Groundwater Levels

GRACE Data Spreads Awareness of Groundwater Levels

Satellite data done as video charts show jut how unsustainable our water use is. click on the link for multiple videos and article.

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