When the Water Runs Out
On the heels of the fairly alarming news about the severe Atlanta drought and Atlanta's dwindling reservoirs, comes this long NY Times Magazine article about water in the Western US that is very interesting and very sobering.
While it seems that Atlantans have been taken surprise by the extent of the drought (only calling for strict water conservation in the past few weeks) and the general lack of preparedness about how to deal with it, the Western states better understand what a precious commodity water is and are trying to figure out how to manage water during a time of explosive population growth, drought and global warming.
The article profiles a couple of water managers - the people tasked with making sure their municipalities don't end up looking at an empty water pipe. I don't envy Pat Mulroy (Las Vegas) and Peter Binney (Aurora, CO), though they should be commended for tackling such an insidious problem. And they clearly recognize what is going on:
We have an exploding human population, and we have a shrinking clean-water supply. Those are on colliding paths. This is not just a Las Vegas issue. This is a microcosm of a much larger issue.
Binney is working on a new pipeline project that will, in essence, collect treated waste water from Aurora and pump it back to Aurora for treatment. Recycled water. A closed-loop water source. Apparently, this is pretty innovative water management. It makes sense on the surface, though I can't help but wonder about how much energy will be required to pipe water back from the river to the treatment facility. The article touches on this link between wawter and energy:
The two problems -- water and energy -- are so intimately linked as to make it exceedingly difficult to tackle one without the other. The less water in our rivers, for instance, the less hydropower our dams produce. The further the water tables sink, the more power it takes to pump water up. The more we depend on coal and nuclear power plants, which require huge amounts of water for cooling, the larger the burden we place on supplies.
This is very troubling. It seems that communities suffering from declining water will turn to systems like Aurora's closed loop in order to recycle waste water (Australia, also suffering extreme drought, is turning to waste water as well). In order to build systems that recycle water, you need massive energy inputs. With energy becoming scarcer and more expensive, this just doesn't add up.
I have seen people refer to "peak everything" ... and I think I'm starting to understand what they mean. These systems are all so linked and connected that a peak in any component sends ripples through the entire complex. The bottom line in this case, however, is that the real source of the problem - over-population - is not being addressed. Instead, the focus is on the drought conditions.
No, the focus should be on reducing the amount of demand for water, via conservation and via reduced head count. Until those two items are pushed higher on the priority list, the long term prospects for resource-constrained areas look ominous.