Boo! Water shortages!

watershortage.jpg

Just in time for Halloween, the New York Times publishes two pieces on the climate change’s “other water problem.” Why worry about rising sea levels when you don’t have any fresh water to drink?

The first is a fascinating, frightening, and essential look at the potential devastation that water shortages could wreak in the American West. The immediate drivers of the crisis are population growth and historically recurrent periods of drought. But climate change runs like a river through the story. As the article notes, it is simply impossible to disentangle the topic of water from the topic of energy. One official predicts that soon we’ll be measuring our “water footprint” the way we do our carbon footprint.

The article is too rich with detail to summarize. As the saying goes, read the whole thing. One thing that struck me is that the sums associated with the infrastructure projects now underway to shore up water supplies in the West are absolutely staggering. Billions of dollars in pipelines and purification plants are required for single municipalities. And people think clean energy is expensive?

Of course, the West has a long history of dealing with water issues and water management. The Southeast doesn’t. Unaccustomed to drought and suspicious of environmental interventions, the Southeastern states are comically unprepared for the shortages they are now experiencing.

How unprepared? “On an 81-degree day this month, an outdoor theme park began to manufacture what was intended to be a 1.2-million-gallon mountain of snow.”

But the story isn’t funny. Desperate to avoid a crisis, state authorities are now pressuring the federal government to cut off water to rivers that support several endangered species. The consequences of this issue really couldn’t be more stark.

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adam

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  1. richard schumacher - October 24, 2007

    Nuclear power plants produce plenty of heat which should be used to make millions of gallons of drinking water per day from seawater. The carbon-free electricity made at the same time is almost a freebie (of course a lot of that will be used to pump the water from the coast to the consumer). Build enough of these and we can breach every dam in the West to let the rivers run free, and irrigate desert land which is now becoming unusable because of salt buildup.
    Costly? You bet. But as the article points out, the only thing more expensive is not doing it.

  2. Jeremy - October 24, 2007

    Richard, while Nuclear is a GHG free energy source, it cannot be considered a “green” (for whatever that word might be worth anymore) source of energy because of the obviously dangerous by products and risks of major disasters associated with Nook-you-lar (as some prominent politians insist on calling it).
    The thought of breaching the dams in the west is something interesting to ponder. The American west is most likely the most man-altered landscape on the planet, mostly due to poorly thought out water allocation strategies to meet the demands of major human populations in the desert. Phoenix, Denver, Vegas, could never exist at 1/10th their numbers without the overallocation of the Colorado River. The year that each state’s water rights were calculated was one of the wettest on record, meaning that totalling the water rights of all states in the Colorado basin equals more than the river can actually provide.
    Anyways, damming water to pool in the desert, creating huge surface areas for evaporation results in billions of gallons of wasted water, silted up dams, water running through rivers that is much colder than it would naturally be, all of this results in wasted resources and disrupted habitats. Wesley Powell would be appalled that his name was used for the dam that ruined the Colorado river.
    It’s a conundrum, really. And i can see it taking a lot of money, policy correction, and heated debate in the coming 100 years to remedy our west’s water problems. In the meantime, we could all turn the water off when we brush, install efficient showerheads and cut down on the Summer-in-the-Southeast snowball fights, please.

  3. Lori - October 24, 2007

    I live in Marietta, GA and I have always found ways to conserve water since I moved here 8 months ago. When I educated all my neighbors, they didnt fight water conservation, they embraced it! They were just clueless and didnt understand it. Once I told them about low flow everything, and rain barrels, tilling and mulching, all conformed.

    The local news last night reported that 18% of all of Atlanta’s water is “non metered” aka “city water leaks” that the city has to fix. Citizens are furious, leaks are reported daily, but the city just doesnt fix them.

  4. Anonymous - October 24, 2007

    Before taking the water away from endangered species, people should really consider decreasing their water foot-print. It is irresponsible and inhumane to drive other species to extinction only for unnecessary human comfort.

  5. Adam Stein - October 24, 2007

    Hi folks. Sorry about the problem with our comment system this morning. I did some site work last night that seemed to take it temporarily out of commission. Back running now.

  6. Anonymous - October 24, 2007

    …And then what do we do with all the nuclear waste generated? Solving one problem by creating another one to solve later is not a very wise use of our resources, time, or money. We need a “war effort” to take the clean (relatively) technologies that exist already- solar, wind, geothermal, etc- and bring them online at a commercial level, FAST. There’s enough wind in the northern plains to power the entire country- we just need to demand it and put our effort into making it happen- I’m willing to do what it will take….

  7. Barack the Vote - October 24, 2007

    Not my kind of future, nuclear desalination plants every 50 miles up our coastlines in the seismically active pacific continental margin. Just think of the nuclear waste disposal issues associated with such an idea, and consider if that’s practical at all. Solar desalination, maybe. I’d rather see sensible population growth encouraged in areas with the water resources to support it (rather than irrigating deserts… who are we fooling there?)

    The problem in the southeast US is they just today started restricting water use, and they’re about to run out of water in less than 60 days at this rate. A little late, isn’t it? And already they are ready to put ESA protections on the chopping block. Georgia’s congressional delegation is united in wanting to declare a federal emergency over the drought. Meanwhile, 1.2 million gallons of snow in 81 degree wesather? Let’s see, a green lawn this month or endangered species protection… tough choice??

    I suspect that conservation has barely even begun to be tapped for the savings it can offer our nation in terms of both water and energy use. Too often I enter a restaurant where the toilets are flushed 100 times a day, only to find an antiquated high-volume water waster, half the time it is continually running. Who will take the time to care and really address this waste? How tough is it to put on water saving taps and low-flush toilets? It’s always easier to blame endangered species or the Corps of Engineers for water problems. The answers are found by looking in the mirror, people.

  8. Anonymous - October 24, 2007

    Water quality affects everyone whether you’re on a private well or a major city’s water filtration plant. See: http://www.WhatsInMyWater.Com

  9. PBrazelton - October 24, 2007

    Not to make a really obvious statement, but the US uses four times the water of the rest of the industrial world per capita (600 liters per capita vs. 150 liters in GBR, for instance). Or is conservation a completely dead topic?

    On the other hand, I suppose we could sink hundreds of billions into nuclear fueled desalinization projects. That’s an (insane) option too.

  10. Todd - October 24, 2007

    Relying on water-free renewable primary power sources such as wind and solar would displace the 70 trillion gallons of water our country consumes each every year in thermoelectric power generation. This is about 15 times the amount used annually for domestic personal use.

    In addition to lots of heat, nuclear power plants also produce lots of waste. So far there is no viable solution for dealing with this waste.

  11. Rob - October 24, 2007

    First, the Fertile Crescent and Nile River Delta are almost certainly more altered.

    Second, nuclear is far from GHG-free. The most extreme estimates show it’s not even GHG-efficient compared to fossil fuels. Mining and refining and transporting all that uranium and building all that concrete (Which doesn’t last *that* long) emits a lot of carbon.

    -Rob

  12. Woody - October 24, 2007

    Did anyone else catch the key phrase in Jeremy’s comment? “…the demands of major human populations…”

    The human population of Earth has more than doubled in my lifetime. If this had not happened, more than half the GHG’s emitted over that time would not have been produced. Imagine the impact on global warming if our population were reduced by half or more within the next 50-100 years.

    Can there be a real solution to GW and its many effects without population reduction? Given that most of the CO2 produced today will remain in the atmosphere for over 100 years, I don’t think so. We can’t conserve enough or switch energy sources fast enough. Population reduction has to be part of the solution, as far as I can see. We can let drought, famine and war reduce our numbers or we can do it by choice.

  13. Adam Stein - October 24, 2007

    The human population of Earth has more than doubled in my lifetime. If this had not happened, more than half the GHG’s emitted over that time would not have been produced.
    This seems pretty dubious to me. GHG output is a function of economic activity. Economic activity is surely a function of population growth in part, but it also matters a lot where that population is getting added. Adding a billion Chinese to the planet is a lot different than adding a billion Americans.
    We can let drought, famine and war reduce our numbers or we can do it by choice.
    I really don’t think we can do it by choice. I recall that the world’s population is supposed to rise to about 10 billion before leveling out in the middle of the century. Long story short: efficiency and renewables are still our best bet.

  14. Mr. Leach - October 24, 2007

    Find a way to use the sea water. Take the salt out or not! Then we can water our lawns in peace. We’ve got ways to purify chlorinate sea water for human consumption or do we.

  15. Adam Stein - October 24, 2007

    Hi Mr. Leach,
    The article has some interesting details on efforts to use desalinated sea water for drinking water. One issue is that this process is energy intensive, and therefore is a further contributor to global warming. Nonetheless, such strategies will likely become increasingly necessary. Check the article out.

  16. Jeremy - October 24, 2007

    i was referring to the actual process of producing the energy, not the mining of resources that it takes to produce that energy. I am not a nuclear advocate at all, but by your logic, Rob, what about the GHG produced in the mining of the various metals associated with building a wind turbine. I’ve seen monstrous trucks filing down the highway carrying a single blade, there is some serious output there.
    “The most extreme estimates.. mining all of that uranium emits a lot of carbon.” More than fossil fuels? doesn’t Coal have to be mined? And then the lifecycle or coal, from transport of a voluminous/heavy resource, to the obviously dirty burning, surely must outweigh GHG (maybe not your extreme estimates, but rarely do the “extremes Estimates” result in an accurate reality).
    Adam is right about “major human populations” this arguement has been posited by a lot of big names in the scientific world, Erlich’s “population bomb” is one example of the sort of Neo-Malthusian alarmism that (even I) can be susceptible to. The amt. of people is not THE problem, although it is part of it. What these people are doing during their stay on mother earth IS the problem.
    It’s not the skyrocketing populations of the Developing nations we should worry about when the U.S. with a fraction of the world’s population emits around 1/4th of the GHG’s. Other countries are already leveling off, while our nation’s population continues to grow (granted, some of that can be written off as in-migration). As i see it, instead of relying on “drought, famine and war” to kill off what will probably be the poor people of the world whose footprint is negligable compared to ours, we need to change our own ways, or pray for the sake of the planet, that the famine, war and drought hits only developed nations like ours.
    A better option would be to be like “anonymous” who says “im willing to do what it takes.” we all need to do what it takes, we need to alter our lifestyles to decrease our industrialized-world footprint and demand government that is on board with this kind of thinking.
    whew.

  17. Jeremy - October 24, 2007

    i was referring to the actual process of producing the energy, not the mining of resources that it takes to produce that energy. I am not a nuclear advocate at all, but by your logic, Rob, what about the GHG produced in the mining of the various metals associated with building a wind turbine. I’ve seen monstrous trucks filing down the highway carrying a single blade, there is some serious output there.
    “The most extreme estimates.. mining all of that uranium emits a lot of carbon.” More than fossil fuels? doesn’t Coal have to be mined? And then the lifecycle or coal, from transport of a voluminous/heavy resource, to the obviously dirty burning, surely must outweigh GHG (maybe not your extreme estimates, but rarely do the “extremes Estimates” result in an accurate reality).
    Adam is right about “major human populations” this arguement has been posited by a lot of big names in the scientific world, Erlich’s “population bomb” is one example of the sort of Neo-Malthusian alarmism that (even I) can be susceptible to. The amt. of people is not THE problem, although it is part of it. What these people are doing during their stay on mother earth IS the problem.
    It’s not the skyrocketing populations of the Developing nations we should worry about when the U.S. with a fraction of the world’s population emits around 1/4th of the GHG’s. Other countries are already leveling off, while our nation’s population continues to grow (granted, some of that can be written off as in-migration). As i see it, instead of relying on “drought, famine and war” to kill off what will probably be the poor people of the world whose footprint is negligable compared to ours, we need to change our own ways, or pray for the sake of the planet, that the famine, war and drought hits only developed nations like ours.
    A better option would be to be like “anonymous” who says “im willing to do what it takes.” we all need to do what it takes, we need to alter our lifestyles to decrease our industrialized-world footprint and demand government that is on board with this kind of thinking.
    whew.

  18. fiver - October 25, 2007

    Jeremy:
    Your logic is good, but we do have to consider lifecycle (building the nuclear plant, mining the uranium, and absolutely, building the wind turbines and transporting them). There are studies that do this, but so far they do tend to have large uncertainties and debates over what to include. I know one is under way for wind turbines, and many have been done for solar (and yes, despite the myth, solar pays off well after a couple years).
    One notable difference between coal and uranium is that coal is far more concentrated; i.e. you don’t have to move many tons of earth to get a ton of coal. Uranium is so incredibly dilute in the ground that you’ve got to move many many tons of earth (and not just move it, but process the uranium out of it), hence the large cost in energy, most likely diesel fuel (and not “clean diesel”). Lest you think I’m a coal aficionado, no: I’m from Texas; our grid is largely coal, and I breathe more coal dust than I want, and I’m all for renewables. I don’t rule out nuclear in a limited role for the near term, either – I’d rather have it than coal, near term, and renewables — yesterday if possible.
    As far as population goes, yes, it’s part of the problem, along with (as Adam points out) the expectation of constant increase in energy usage as a requirement for a Western lifestyle. The best choices for limiting population growth (humanely and positively), as shown in country after country, are to educate the women, to provide basic health care (or at least reduce dramatic disease burden), and to reduce infant mortality. These things actually reduce family sizes, and make those families more able to care for, and educate their children, creating an upward spiral (“virtuous circle” as it were). For you Oprah fans, she’s got the right idea with her girl’s school efforts.

  19. Woody - October 25, 2007

    Adam, the U.S. population more than doubled over the same time period as well. This occurred because immigration combined with birthing to be sure, but whether people arrive via immigration or birth, all add to the economic activity of the U.S. which produces so much GHG.

    Projections are made for population as they are for GHG production. It is important to work to minimize both; don’t accept the projected numbers as inevitable in either case.

    I maintain that working to reduce population is key in combating global warming. Imagine the GW impact of a single unintended birth over a lifetime of consuming resources and manufactured goods as well as direct energy use. Conserving by changing ones lightbulbs to CFLs pales by comparison (pun unintended).

  20. Alex - October 25, 2007

    The commercials or any show in the media won’t tell people that all the meat they consume is ironically consuming most of the fresh water when it was still alive that they are now having a hard time getting. Among all the other negatives of an extremely meat rich American diet.

  21. solarium - October 28, 2007

    Nuclear power plants produce plenty of heat which should be used to make millions of gallons of drinking water per day from seawater.

  22. Anonymous - November 1, 2007

    wHyyyyy

  23. mac - November 2, 2007

    Hello, there is a few web sites that bloggers should view before pounding on the nuclear fuel rod. The continuing deformed babies from the Russian accident and the down wind effects of the french little problem, or the tree mile island land dead zones, oh and the continuing fun at the Hanford Reservation in Washington State is a trip to the fair. Just because they can build it (with much government tax credits) does not mean we have to come. The choice for fuel for inter-planetry travel is solar until we fully fund a commitiment to a renewabe why open the nuke box, unless the end of mankind is really our aim. Besides making steam from the Sun’s heat is not new (basic saliniztion process).
    thxs