State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Peak Water?

In 1956, Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert presented a paper to the American Petroleum Institute in which he argued that United States oil production would hit its all-time highest rate of production sometime between 1965 and 1970.

Though widely derided at the time, Hubbert’s prediction turned out to be correct: U.S. oil production peaked in 1970, at roughly 9.6 million barrels of oil per day. Today the United States produces only about 5.3 million barrels per day, a decline of nearly 40 percent, even as consumption has continued to rise. To meet the demand, the U.S. has been forced to import ever larger quantities of crude oil from overseas, with profound consequences for foreign policy, global security and sustainability.

Chart of Historical U.S. Oil Production

Today, a growing number of scientists argue that global peak oil may be upon us—an argument that would seem to be supported by the increasingly heroic measures oil companies are taking (such as the ultra-deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico) to keep up with global oil demand. Given the world’s dependence on oil, a global production decline has enormous implications.

Until recently, Hubbert’s modeling techniques were applied only to oil and other non-renewable resources. But in the last few years, researchers of other resources have begun to examine whether consumption of some renewable resources follows Hubbert’s model.

So how useful is the concept of “peak water”?

Noted water expert Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, spoke on the issue at the Columbia Water Center last February.

As Dr. Gleick makes clear, there are important differences between fresh water and crude oil. Practically any use of oil, he says, is “consumptive” – that is, once the energy in it is extracted and used, its quality is degraded and it is effectively gone forever. Water, on the other hand, is never really lost to the hydrologic cycle. Thus it is not literally possible to experience global “peak water”.

But insofar as water is extracted from a particular stock faster than nature can replenish it, the potential for regional peak water is very real. Many underground aquifers and even some surface water stored in lakes and glaciers can indeed be thought of as non-renewable—and thus subject to peak and decline–because they can be depleted faster than the natural recharge rate.

Gleick also introduces the concept peak “ecological” water – the point past which a watershed’s water supply is depleted to the point of causing irreversible damage to local ecosystems that depend on it. The history of human-caused desertification attests to the very real dangers of irresponsible regional water use.

Finally, in peak oil circles, researchers often speak not of the “the end of oil” but of “the end of cheap, easy to access” oil. Looked at from this perspective, the global water situation is indeed analogous to that of oil.

The end of cheap, easy oil is here. The end of cheap, easy water is here too. Now what are we going to do about it?

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13 years ago

Well, the Neo-Liberal economic orthodox know what they think we should do about it. Privatize it and give it to Corporations to maximize profit on.

Is the problem that we’re not charging enough, and we need a “market solution”? Just how do you get competitive pricing of water resources? Just who exactly needs to pay these charges? who is wasting? who is exporting from the aquifers?

We don’t have it very much now on broadband services which are a similar “last mile” business, and a public good.

Nursery owners will grow tomatoes in hot houses and export the water from the aquifer (this is what happened in Israel and Palestine)…bottled water companies export from the aquifer…manufacturers of all types use gazillions of gallons in their manufacturing processes for most products, coal generation plants use it for cooling…but that may not leave the aquifer, so doesn’t pose the same risk to the aquifer. Exporting the water should be a factor to look at very carefully.

Big cities in in dry places like LA, Atlanta, Miami, LV all require water exported from aquifers in the Mountains, i.e. Colorado River, NC, etc. Now they’re all depleted and the fresh water evaporated into the global system. Does that mean we’re turning fresh water into salt water? With these cities? NYC’s freshwater run off goes right into the salt Ocean.

13 years ago

Point well taken about the exporting of water.

The whole issue of water rights is complicated and in many cases counter-intuitive. Until very recently in Colorado it was illegal to catch rainwater off of your roof for home use — the idea being that in so doing you were depriving a downstream user of his or her water “rights”. Certainly we’re going to have to do a lot of serious thinking about the “rights” and “ownership” means when talking about a basic good like water!

13 years ago

[…] this month, Lakis blogged about the concept of peak water and the seminar that Peter Gleick gave at CWC on the topic. In […]

13 years ago

[…] More rare are those cases in which water actually kills the monster. Most famously, there are the aliens from the movie Signs. In this movie, a wise/psychic little girl keeps filling up glasses of water and leaving them around the house, so that when the aliens finally attack, someone can throw water on them and kill them. Clearly this film is intended to highlight the importance of fresh water resources throughout the world, and illuminate the risk of alien attack once the world passes peak water. […]

Patrick Sampson - The Peak Oil Question
12 years ago

One could certainly argue that not only does the peak oil concept apply to fresh water, but that the two intermingle. The effort of oil companies to mine tar sands and shale oil are extremely water intensive. In fact, much of the current effort in Texas has ground to a halt as the massive drought has left communities and oil companies battling it out over who has the right to access the available water. Once could suggest it foreshadows a common theme around the world.