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Posted by on May 10, 2010 in Economy, Science & Technology | 0 comments

Peak Water

We have been hearing more about Peak Oil recently after years of denial. But unless you live in an area that is already experiencing shortage you probably haven’t heard much about “Peak Water.” Bob Doyle of the Cumberland Times-News attempts to enlighten us.

But there is a crisis coming even sooner involving the most precious resource, absolutely vital to life — water.

And when water becomes scarce, there will be inadequate food as plants are pretty thirsty. How can this be, when about 70 percent of our planet is covered by ocean water?

Most plants, animals and people can’t drink salt water, needing fresh water. 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is frozen on top of Antarctica.

Most of the remaining fresh water is deep inside the Earth in huge underground lakes called aquifers

The problem is close to home:

In some agricultural areas of California, the ground level has dropped 30 feet from excessive draining of aquifers.

The Colorado River no longer empties into the Gulf of California (Mexico) as all of its water has been taken by irrigation.

Decades from now, when there will be little snow pack in the Northwestern states, some large western rivers will have even less flow, and large U.S. hydroelectric facilities in the West will no longer supply much of their current electric power.

But outside the US the problem is even worse:

Yemen’s aquifers around some of its cities are nearly gone.

Saudi Arabia is phasing out its wheat crop as its large aquifer will be nearly exhausted in a decade.

In upper China, the large fossil aquifer (which is not easily recharged) is being drawn down several meters a year.

Near Beijing, water wells go down a kilometer (0.6 mile) to get water for the city’s inhabitants.

It is even worse in India as many wells have gone dry and in some regions, half of the electricity is being used to pull up water for people and crops.

I covered the problem in India here. Briefly, Norman Borlaug was said to be the father of the “green revolution” and won a Nobel Prize for feeding billions. The problem was that his techniques required fossil fuels and lots of fossil ground water. The party is about over in India as fossil fuels become increasingly expensive and the ground aquifer is nearly pumped dry.

Carbon based lifeforms like we humans can live without oil and natural gas but not without water. For that reason as we attempt to satisfy our addiction to fossil fuels we must think seriously about threats to our water supplies. The energy companies tell us we can have both but their record is not very good. Coal mining in Appalachia has resulted in the pollution of much of the area’s surface water. Disposal of coal ash from power plants also threatens water. More recently “fracking” for natural gas has been in the headlines.

New Yorkers have been talking/protesting a lot about proposed natural gas drilling upstate, where much of our esteemed, tasty tap water originates. The issue: whether the industrial process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a threat to the watershed.

But as the United States becomes “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” , this debate is happening all over the country.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday it will re-investigate hydraulic fracturing, in which water, sand, and unidentified chemicals are shot into natural gas wells at high pressure. The procedure opens up gas reserves locked underground by various geological formations.

Part of the problem is that the industry is very secretive:

Unfortunately for the industry, the investigation is already amassing the firepower it needs to make the case for federal regulation. Halliburton (HAL) and seven other oil-field companies, including Schlumberger (SLB) and BJ Services (BJS), are at the center of the investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and have been asked to turn over information about the chemicals used in fracking, how much water is consumed and how companies dispose of waste water during the process.
Halliburton and BJ Services already appear to have have broken a promise to the EPA not to use diesel fluids in their fracking processes, according to Waxman. Between 2005 and 2007, Halliburton allegedly used more than 807,000 gallons of seven diesel-based fluids. BJ Services reported using 2,500 gallons of two diesel-based fluids, although it acknowledged violating the agreement and has taken steps to correct the error.

Even nuclear power is a threat.

LACEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Radioactive water that leaked from the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant has reached an aquifer that supplies drinking water to much of southern New Jersey, the state’s environmental chief said yesterday.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station to halt the spread of contaminated water underground, even as it said there was no imminent threat to drinking water supplies.
The department launched a new investigation yesterday into the April 2009 spill and said the actions of plant owner Exelon Corp. have not been sufficient to contain water contaminated with tritium.
Tritium is found naturally in tiny amounts and is a product of nuclear fission. It has been linked to cancer if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin in large amounts.
“There is a problem here,’’ said environmental Commissioner Bob Martin. “I am worried about the continuing spread of the tritium into the groundwater and its gradual moving toward wells in the area.’’

The BP oil spill in the Gulf is just the latest example of how the energy industry cannot be trusted and must be heavily regulated. In some cases that regulation may make the exploration and production uneconomical but water is simply too important.

Ron can also be found at Newshoggers