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    Jack Keller: Understanding Peak Water

    by Adam Taggart

    Saturday, December 17, 2011, 3:17 AM

“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 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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Or click here to read the full transcript.  

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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