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Green Weenie of the Week: Peak Water

As noted here a few days ago, the beloved “peak oil” hypothesis has gone poof, but if you’re an enviro-doomster, you’ve got to have peak-something to grab on to, because Malthus.  Looks like the new peak obsession will be . . . water.  Yes—the stuff that falls regularly from the sky, the bulk of which (99 percent of surface water probably) we allow to flow back into the ocean.

From Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute comes this warning: “Peak oil has generated headlines in recent years, but the real threat to our future is peak water. There are substitutes for oil, but not for water.”  Hold it right there.  There are substitutes for oil?  Nice how easily Brown shoves aside the whole problem of hydrocarbons so he can begin shedding (recycled) crocodile tears about water.

To be sure, a lot of water resources are unsustainably exploited and badly mismanaged, mostly by governments with all the wrong incentives to manage it well, or where water is treated as a common pool resource, in which case the solution is rather obvious isn’t it?

But more to the point, it turns out that there are substitutes for water, in a manner of speaking.  Walter Russell Mead points us toward new innovations in low-cost, low-energy desalinization, which would essentially mean unlimited quantities of cheap water.  From the University of Texas:

By creating a small electrical field that removes salts from seawater, chemists at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Marburg in Germany have introduced a new method for the desalination of seawater that consumes less energy and is dramatically simpler than conventional techniques. The new method requires so little energy that it can run on a store-bought battery.

The process evades the problems confronting current desalination methods by eliminating the need for a membrane and by separating salt from water at a microscale.

So the Peakers will have to come up with something else.  I suspect they’ll rise to the challenge.

Meanwhile, FWIW, here are a few facts and figures on water use in the United States which show that we’re not using more and more all the time.  They are a few years old, but I’m working on updating my data sets right now. First, note that the highest use of water in the U.S. is for electric power generation, followed by agriculture.   Second, note that total water use for the main categories peaked almost 40 years ago, and have been roughly flat since then.  The second chart shows that total water withdrawals, after nearly doubling from 1950 to 1980, have flattened out.

Figure 1: Water Uses in the U.S.

Figure 2: Total Water Withdrawals in the U.S.

Figure 3: Per Capita Water Use in the U.S.

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