Have We Really Reached "Peak Water"?

One of my New Year's blogolutions was to clear out my to-blog folder, and bring closure to my unfinished drafts by simply posting them as-is. This is one of those drafts. Disorganized paragraphs, unfinished sentences, and general incoherence enhance the natural character and beauty of a half-written blog post and should not be considered flaws or defects.

Draft date: November 19, 2008

I stopped writing this post because I convinced myself that I was probably maybe sorta wrong, and not just because we are mining the Ogallala... but now I can't remember my own argument. So I'll punt to discussion. What do you think? Is "Peak Water" a useful concept?

My household's snark analysts and sarcasm experts are beginning to worry about Peak Peak Patience. While I am still able to be somewhat patient with people who use "Peak X" as a hip and attention-grabbing way to indicate that Commodity X is in short supply, and I will be able to refrain from throwing my shoe at the radio for the foreseeable future (albeit at increasing cost to my sanity), the rate at which I produce new amounts of patience for this trendy buzzphrase may have already entered a steady and irrevocable decline. If Peak Peak Patience hasn't already happened, it will happen soon; I hope that global media leaders are prepared for the shock.

"Peak Oil" (and by extension "Peak Water", or that eye-rolling coinage "Peak Coffee" that was making the rounds a few months ago) is not just a fancy way of saying "oops, there's a shortage". It's a technical term. It refers to a feature of oil production that results from the following:

  1. There's only so much oil in the ground. When we use it all up, it will be gone.
  2. We will use oil up just as fast as we can possibly find it and build new pipelines for it.
  3. We find oil faster when there is a lot of it in the ground; when it's almost gone, locating and extracting those last few dregs will be much more difficult and time-consuming.

If you write that down in math, you can see the "peak" in "peak oil".

Technically, a Hubbert peak could apply to water resources. Even though water is a renewable resource, we are perfectly capable of using it up faster than fresh drinking water can fall from the sky. Aquifers in arid places fill up drip by drip, a process which takes thousands to hundreds of thousands of years; since we only plan things 50-100 years in advance at best, we might as well consider these ancient aquifers to be a finite resource.

If we mine the water from our aquifers as fast as we can - faster than it can be replaced - then we will eventually reach "Peak Water" and be in big trouble.

We are in big trouble, but it has nothing to do with a Hubbert curve.


Trouble in the Southwest U.S.

The actual extraction of ground water from most basins in Southern California is limited to the safe yield. This is because everyone has already sued everyone else. The problem is that population/need keeps growing and sustainable yield does not.

Trouble in Zimbabwe

Pollution of shallow aquifers.

More like this

But GHGs will speed up the water cycle, saving us from running out of fresh water!

Oh wait...

The problem with water is mostly
1) Limits to resources needed to get it to drinkable form
2) "Global Warming" shifts of natural near-potable supplies (eg: no summer icecap meltoff)

The limits on groundwater "mining" are (I think ) merely contributory.

This is a good idea.
Labs like the Mono Lake basin calculations in Lee, Fetter, and McCray's manual are common in hydrogeology classes.
The data for similar water balance calculations is fairly available for major cities. It might be a little trickier to get a hard number for net groundwater flow in/out of the basin, but very good approximations can be estimated.

Hubbert's work started with his study of individual fields before he tied it all together to make his national (and world) predictions. It sounds like we are in this early stage for water.

Bottom line: good idea! :-)

The data for similar water balance calculations is fairly available for major cities. It might be a little trickier to get a hard number for net groundwater flow in/out of the basin, but very good approximations can be estimated.

I used to be employed to make those estimates. In basins that are governed by a watermaster (usually as a result of some lawsuit), estimates of net ground water recharge/discharge are updated on a regular basis and the results are public record.

The raw numbers won't fit a Hubbert curve, because water rights law does a decent job at limiting extraction - once total extraction has reached the basin's safe yield, it more or less stays there. But there aren't such effective limits on population growth and development, so I was thinking that if you normalize by population, you might start to see something interesting.

I need to think about Peak Water ... but, like you allude to, I think we have reached Peak Usage of the Word Peak.

Peak X might have gotten overused, but "If you write that down in math" just became my new favorite phrase.

I'm going to try to use "Not if you write that down in math" as a succinct refutation of faulty reasoning from now on.

Arvind, just be careful who you use it with - it's only succinct if the person you're arguing with doesn't actually make you write it down in math and explain it as you go!

I don't think Peak Water is a useful term. It will just cause rolling eyes and trivialize the importance of it. And the water cycle will keep supplying it as opposed to a finite resource(oil). Peak water might be useful in places like the Ogallala if you factor the change in discharge rate with rate of recharge as a constant then you can point to a peak. I would avoid using the term anywhere except in individual aquifer systems since it will be different at each one.
As far as global fresh water supply - Peak usage is a good term, but it's really more of a peak sustainable yield; a function of precipitation, change in rate of consumption vs change in rate of recharge. There is a finite amount of reliably available water, not simply a finite amount of water. A carry-capacity if you will. In the end I expect it will all become highly commodified.

has anyone seen my peak peacock

By christopher guerra (not verified) on 21 Jan 2009 #permalink

Take a peek at peak peacock beak peaks. Eeeek!

Without peak human everything else is at best a temporary solution.

There is no a shortage of water, there is an unsustainable overabundance of humans living & irrigating lawns & crops in arid locations. People keep moving to those places, and there are no controls on how many are allowed in. Any population that exceeds the carrying capacity of its ecosystem WILL crash.

Meanwhile, here in the Ohio River valley, we have a glacial outwash aquifer about 100' deep, almost a mile wide and a thousand miles long underneath the river, wet summers that don't require irrigation to grow crops, and climate change will likely bring more precipitation in the future, not less.

"Peak" WATER? Not here.

By Sassafras (not verified) on 29 Mar 2010 #permalink