Water is the new oil – a reprise from 2013

The following post was written nine years ago, but with the severe water shortages occurring in the western United States and in Italy, Germany, England, etc., this issue is coming to head. Some of the observations made then are now coming home to roost in more than a few places.

Let’s get down to basics. Our planet has two vital resources  – air and water. We cannot live without them, but we continue to be pretty poor stewards of both. With the advent of man-influenced global warming, one of the key outcomes is we will have more severe droughts in drought-stricken areas. The models are showing global warming is occurring at a faster pace than predicted several years ago. Yet, even without global warming, we must be better stewards with our resources, water in particular. In the book “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” by Steven Solomon, he devotes an entire chapter looking to the future. The chapter is called “Water: The New Oil.”

First, some context. This book is one of the best history books I have ever read. Solomon discusses how civilizations came into power and then fell by their ability or inability to manager water resources. Water serves several purposes besides drinking water – farming, sewage maintenance, transport and energy. Getting water into cities and out of them with sewage are vital to their health and wealth.  The latter can be equally important due to the bouts of cholera and dysentery that occur when sewage intermixes with the drinking water supply.

A few examples might help. There are three things that occurred in US history which significantly aided our rise to power in the world. The first was the Erie Canal which connected New York with the Great Lakes. The second is the Panama Canal which gave the US control over two oceans. The third is the numerous dams and water shed protections which gave us energy as well as secured drinking and farming water. Teddy Roosevelt’s greatest contribution is he was the most prolific water oriented US president in our history.

Yet, we have a major problem. We are not protecting our water supply like we need to. There are an increasing number of fights over water, where people downstream argue with people diverting more gallons to their communities upstream. Also, with the worsening droughts, there is insufficient rain to replenish the water. This problem is not restricted to the US. Saudi Arabia is rich with oil, but very poor with water. Its water sheds are in danger of drying out in the reasonably near future. In the US, Texas has numerous cities where the water aquifers are dried out. Water has to be trucked in from elsewhere. The national and international agencies that measure the impact of global warming, say the extreme droughts in Texas are exacerbated by man-influenced global warming.

Water is more critical now than ever before. Water is the new oil. We straighten out rivers allowing water to run off too quickly. We let run off occur from developments that increase silt in the water by washing the sand, dirt and clay into the water. With the rising seas, we let seawater run into fresh water lagoons that were used for farming. We Americans over water our lawns to make them green, when the indigenous grass and shrubs would be OK with a healthy brown color. We cut down on the water flow downstream by damming up a river upstream. We get energy, but there needs to be a more judicious way to let the water flow and still provide the energy.

And, we use water for energy purposes besides the hydro-powered electricity the dams create. In some energy solutions, the water can flow back into the water supply as tepid water, but not all of it as some gets lost in the process. For example, with coal-fired, nuclear powered, and natural gas-powered plants, the water is used to create steam from the heated source. The steam turns the turbine which causes the electromagnetic generator to turn and create the power. Once the water re-forms from the steam, it can be released back into its source. Yes, there are other environmental impacts, but the leftover water can flow back to the source.

Fracking to get the natural gas is a totally different matter. The major concern I have over fracking is not just the chemically laden water, the mercury, arsenic and methane that leaks into the air, the earthquakes that are causally linked to deep ground water disposal and the environmental infrastructure defamation, it is the water cannot and must not be reused. There are two problems. You cannot let the chemically laden water to get back into the water supply. It is harmful to humans and animals. Yet, water finds a way and it poisons the water sources. In the movie “Gasland” there is story of a woman who freezes and saves all the dead animals she finds near rivers and streams adjacent to fracking sites. She has hundreds of them.

The bigger concern is the use of the water in the first place. As noted, we cannot reuse the water. Yet, to frack a well, it is estimated by industry that it takes 4 to 6 million gallons per frack. The average well is fracked ten to twelve times, but let’s use ten for ease of the math. So, the average well is fracked with 40 to 60 million gallons of water. In Utah, they built 2,000 wells in close proximity. If you multiply this out, that is 80 to 120 billion gallons of water. In my home state of NC, they are talking about fracking 10,000 wells. That translates into 400 to 600 billion gallons of water. Using an unscientific term, that is a bucketload of water.

My question is this where you want to use your water? Given the above problems that fracking causes, is this where you want to use your water? You may say I am blowing smoke, but farmers and frackers fought over water in Kansas and Colorado this summer. I would add that Texas is a leader in fracking and they have an extreme drought issue with some cities out of water. I am not linking the two causally as I don’t know for sure, but that is one hell of a correlation, meaning one occurrence happens at the same time as another.

Is this where you want to use your water? I don’t. Fracking is bad enough news without this issue. But, this makes it a slam dunk. The developer makes money, gives a stipend to the landowner and then leaves the clean up to the state. The state residents are the ones who will suffer from the water shortage and other issues.

Water is one of our two dearest resources. Water is the new oil. We cannot soil it and then immediately drink it. We cannot flush it away and not reuse it. We must find ways to conserve it, distribute it equitably and be judicious with its use. We need to innovate on ideas like the flushless toilet competition that is underway. In desert areas, find inventive ways to get rid of sewage. In a major county in California, they are significantly filtering sewage run off water to make new drinking water. And, I mean signficantly filtering it with multiple steps. We need to use more indigenous plants. We need to conserve our water use.

And, we need to use renewable energy sources that do not demand the use of water. Solar and wind energy processes continue to get more scalable, but we need to factor the overall cost of eco-energy versus fossil fuel energy, which must include the cost on the environment, health of our people, and use of water. Fossil fuel produced energy may be cheaper without these other factors, but we need to move away from them in a concerted way.* Our lives depend on it.

*Note: Nine years later, producing wind and solar is as or more cost effective than coal energy production even without factoring in the other environmental, litigation and transportation costs.

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Water crisis out west solicits water restrictions, but need more

Per an article presented on CBS News called “US West hit with water cuts but rebuffs call for deeper ones,” the federal government stepped in when seven states out west could not come to an agreement, as their water sources dwindle to less than 1/2, closer to 1/3 of their previous supply. The article can be linked to below, but here are a few key paragraphs:

“For the second year in a row, Arizona and Nevada will face cuts in the amount of water they can draw from the Colorado River as the West endures more drought, federal officials announced Tuesday.

The cuts planned for next year will force states to make critical decisions about where to reduce consumption and whether to prioritize growing cities or agricultural areas. Mexico will also face cuts.

But those reductions represent just a fraction of the potential pain to come for the 40 million Americans in seven states that rely on the river. Because the states failed to respond to a federal ultimatum to figure out how to cut their water use by at least 15%, they could face even deeper cuts that the government has said are needed to prevent reservoirs from falling so low they cannot be pumped.

‘The states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system,’ Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said.

Together, the missed deadline and cuts place officials responsible for providing water to growing cities and farms under renewed pressure to plan for a hotter, drier future and a growing population.

Touton has said the additional 15% reduction is necessary to ensure that water deliveries and hydroelectric power are not disrupted. She was noncommittal on Tuesday about whether she planned to impose those cuts unilaterally if the states cannot reach agreement.”

The world has been facing a global water crisis for some time now. A couple of years ago, Cape Town, South Africa had a countdown to no water, which they staved off. And, Saudi Arabia, an oil rich country, is water poor, so the regime said Muslims could pray with sand instead of water. In the US, we are seeing pockets of water shortage with the western part of the country seeing the worst trouble. The shortage is exacerbated as seven states have competed for and cannot come to an agreement on how to reduce water supply.

In short, these states better get their act together. Climate change has only made the water crisis worse. Duke Energy wrote a report that projected on top of normal water loss when creating power due to steam dissipation that is not reconverted to water after the power is generated and evaporation from water reservoirs, they would lose an additional 11% of water due to climate change. This is an additional reason we need to move aggressively to sources of energy that do not require fresh water such as wind, tidal and photovoltaic solar energy. *

And, our industries, government and water users must alter our practices before it is too late. This relates to the type of plants that are used which need to be endemic to an area, to fewer golf courses, to less lawn watering, to less fracking for natural gas which uses an abundance of water, to less usage by people. People must do the part, but in a survey this week, many felt they could not make a difference. That is selfish and short-sighted. They better make a difference or they will need to have water shipped in or move.

In Miriam Horn’s book “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman,” she notes a farmer said we need to grow crops that grow naturally to an area. They require far less water that way. The farm to table restaurants are nice in principle, but in certain places growing water intensive crops is less utile. These are the kinds of things we need to think about.

It really comes down to the following; water, air and food. We must nurture and protect these resources. And, when a fossil fuel company raises a stink, remind them of what Steven Solomon said in his book “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization.” He coined the phrase “water is the new oil.” I first heard this phrase uttered by the CEO of Duke Energy at the time, before I read Solomon’s must read book. Now, why would a CEO say that?

*There are some solar installations that heat water to steam to turn turbines and generate power, but most solar installations use photovoltaic solar panels that harness the sun’s energy.

https://www.cbsnews.com/colorado/news/us-west-colorado-river-water-cuts-drought/

When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water – a revisit to an old post

The following post was written nine years ago. Since that time the global water crisis has annually been noted as the number one or two long term concern by the World Economic Forum. Plus, we have had crises like the one in Cape Town, South Africa where they came perilously close to running out of water and Flint, Michigan where a lead pipe system caused health issues for disenfranchised populations. Caution, this is a little longer than my current posts, which I have tried to shorten.

The title above is a quote from Benjamin Franklin which speaks volumes. Water is a very dear resource and we truly do not know its ultimate value until it is gone or our access to it is limited. I recently completed one of the best history books I have ever read “Water – the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization” by Steven Solomon. Solomon has written for the New York Times, Business Week, The Economist, Forbes and Esquire among other places and is the author of “The Confidence Game,” so the book has an investigative storytelling bent which makes history come alive. Yet, it is not just a history book as he brings us to today’s times and provides us with cautions to heed as we move forward.

In short, the book shows the ability for great civilizations to rise, thrive and fall based on their ability to control water resources for drinking, farming, manufacturing, sewage and transportation. Through this we learn the vital role that bringing water into an area for use and then using it to sweep away sewage from that same area can have in enhancing or debilitating our lives. To paint an ugly picture, London in the mid-1800’s had a terrible period, as did other major cities, where cholera, dysentery and other diseases were prominent. The period was called “The Big Stink” as sewage was not be adequately washed away and was actually being dumped into the same drinking water sources. After years of postponement (sounds like our debt crisis) of dealing with it, the smell became so grotesque that Parliament had to act within 18 days to set in motion a plan to resolve it.

I use this example rather than others as it shows how basic the needs water fills and our inability to use it wisely can be truly catastrophic. Rome was known for its aqueducts and how it flourished with the baths it created. The baths which improved hygiene became so popular, they were the social meeting places where people of all strata kept themselves clean and healthy. It is not ironic that Rome flourished during this time and fell when many of these aqueducts were destroyed by invaders from the North.

To use a more recent example, Teddy Roosevelt is probably the greatest water president in US history. Before his time, the greatest US water accomplishment was the building of the Erie Canal which reduced the cost of goods transport immensely connecting ports. Roosevelt had three major contributions – the building of the Panama Canal, the development of planned water rights and retrieval in the west to help irrigate dry areas for crops and sustenance, and the protection of water sheds via the vast number of parks he created. His inspiration and force of will also led to the building of the Hoover Dam which occurred later and whose success was copied many times over by his cousin, Franklin when he was in the White House.

It is arguable that these water initiatives by Teddy Roosevelt are key reasons the US is as powerful today. I recognize that downplays the roles of many others, but the US leveraged its access to both coasts through the building of the Panama Canal. Plus, it helped the can-do psyche of Americans after earlier attempts by France to build the canal failed. Successful major construction can be uplifting just as failures can be crushing as China saw with the huge failure of a major dam project completed just four years ago.

I wanted to provide a little varied context from the book, as we look at problems of today and the near and longer term future. I had incorrectly given credit for this quote to Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, but a key chapter title in the book is called “Water: The New Oil.” We have growing concerns in the US, especially in drier parts of the country, but even other areas which are not known for being dry. More on these later. While we have these concerns, we are still referenced as being more water rich than other places on the planet. What this book highlights is the insatiable desire for water in water poor countries is causing the misuse or  unplanned use of water at too fast a pace so that it cannot be replenished. What will bring the Middle East to its knees will be the ever worsening shortage of water. As rich a country as Saudi Arabia is through oil, it is water poor and will very soon be using up its water supply. Other countries are even in more dire straits in that region.

If you move into the African continent you can look to Ethiopia to where the Nile begins, but most of the water is used in Egypt. Issues have erupted around the sharing of water and will continue to be of concern. The building of the Aswan Dam was in some respects a success, but in others a failure as it was built in the wrong place. Much of the water created from the dam evaporates before it is used. The book points out to these kinds of issues as we plan ahead and we must. This issue becomes even more critical in water and economically poor countries. So, globally we need concerted planning on we should use our water resources. This problem will only become worse if we grow unfettered increasing the number of people on our planet and the impact of global warming continues to affect our supply.

Bringing the issue back to the US,  we are water rich, but could be better personal, industrial and governmental stewards of our water. Americans use far more water than others on the planet. We are seeing droughts and water fights between Georgia, Alabama and Florida and Texas has numerous places where the water table has dried up, e.g. The global warming impact will continue to hit the driest places on the planet the most and it is one of the factors there has been the onset of forest fires which we are seeing here and in Australia and Russia.

So, we need to act now to plan ahead with better water usage strategies and not wait for the “big stink” to occur using that as a metaphor for all water problems. And, we need to continue to offer and help other countries develop strategies and execute them at the regional and local levels. One of the ironies is in parts of rural India where the British water management back in the early 1900’s did not reach, they still maintain water councils who provide stewardship over water use. India has grown so rapidly in major cities, that the infrastructure needs updating, but these smaller water council areas continue to be judicious users of water because they had to be that way. We all need to be judicious.

So, what can we do? At the individual level, conservation is key. Three of the greatest water uses are in flushing toilets, washing clothes and washing dishes. If we each can strive for more the more energy-efficient wash cycles and lower water use toilets that could be an enormous savings. There are recycling examples for water where toilets can draw from shower water and rainwater collections can be used for watering plants. We Americans need to cut back on the lawn sprinklers as well as we abuse this privilege. We can do this through use, but also by planting more indigenous grasses and plants. I am also reminded of my Dad’s navy shower restrictions on ship – 25 seconds of water. You used five to wet your body. Then you soaped up and turned back on the spigot for the last twenty seconds of water to rinse off. I am not advocating navy shower limits per se, but we do not need to be like my children either and lounge around in the shower.

Yet, I think we need to be aware and advocate that we should address our problems. There are some very good things going on in our country that can be done elsewhere. Setting aside the Big Stink example, Orange County in CA has successfully reused sewage water as drinking water and for irrigation. As scary as this sounds, they use multiple filtering and cleaning techniques that have proven to work.  There is continued exploration of desalinization techniques with ocean water, but they tend to be very expensive and the issue of what to do with the salt is an issue. Plus, there are some neat things going on in industry to use recycled water for various uses.

On the flip side, we have continued to be poor stewards in other areas and have been slow to act in rectifying these issues. In “Living Downstream,” Dr. Sandra Steingraber has noted we continue to pollute our waters with petro-chemicals which wreak havoc. In Canada, they have outlawed ornamental pesticides for home use due to the air and water poisoning. And, one of the big reasons I am against fracking is, in addition to the toxic issues it causes for air and water, it uses an exorbitant amount of water, 2 – 5 million gallons per fracking well. Fracking did not cause the drought in Texas, but it sure is not helping it now. We need a strong EPA, not a weakened one.

Finally, this is a major issue that affects every resource issue, so it needs to be stated. I am going to ask everyone to set aside their religious beliefs for these next few statements. The earth cannot support the unfettered increase in population.  We are in the neighborhood of 8 million people. If we all consume as Rwandans do, the earth may be able to support 15 million. If we consume the way Americans do, the earth could only support less than 2 million. Please reread these two sentences. So, if we do not have planned birth control, we will run out of food and water. Even if you set aside global warming and its impact which is here and will get worse, we cannot support an unfettered increase in our population. So, when I hear how evil Planned Parenthood and its global partners around the world are by our more evangelical global citizens, my reaction is we desperately need family planning and birth control or we are sentencing ourselves and our children to die or to a much different kind of life. In my bible, God told us to be good stewards of the earth. We all need to step up to the plate now and heed his wishes or we will witness Benjamin Franklin’s caution noted above.

Water problems have been around for ages – a revisit

The following post was written five years ago, but still is relevant. Since that time, the city of Cape Town, South Africa came perilously close to running out of water, being saved by severe rationing. And, climate change continues to make the water crisis is even worse.*

The water issues that have been plaguing Flint, Michigan residents are not new. Our planet has had water (and sewage) issues dating back to when people gathered together in villages. In Steven Solomon’s book called “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” he describes how the mastery over water resources kept leaders of civilizations in power. The needed mastery revolved around water to drink and bathe in, water to carry sewage away, water for transportation and trade and water for naval control.

Here are a few examples to illustrate this point.

  • Every major city has had water/ sewage issues. In London in the 1850s, a  major problem came to a head which was called the Big Stink. The planners had sewage lines dropping waste into the Thames. When cholera and dysentery epidemics broke out, initially, the planners thought these were air borne diseases. But, when they realized a brewery, where employees drank free beer, had only minimal breakout, they realized the diseases were water borne. It turned out the sewage line was perilously close to the line that pulled water from the Thames to drink. Once that was remedied, the breakouts subsided.
  • In Edinburgh, the Scots had an unusual way have handling sewage. It turns out, the city dwellers would throw sewage out of their homes around 10 pm, which is the reason people smoked after meals to mitigate the smell. This made foot traffic very perilous and less than sanitary.
  • In Chicago, when the city got so crowded and filthy, city leaders realized they needed to carry sewage away, but they could not figure out how to do it. An engineer had an idea that they should lift the buildings using railroad car heavy duty jacks and build the sewage and water lines beneath the buildings.This actually worked too well, as Lake Michigan began to get filthy and fish would be coming up through the water lines into bath tubs. So, they had to remedy where the sewage was dumped.
  • It is thought that the greatest Chinese achievement is the Great Wall. Yet, a more monumental achievement per Solomon was to build a canal between the two major rivers in the country – the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. This was a massive undertaking, but led to transportation and trade across the country.
  • Solomon also advocates the two greatest achievements in US History that made us a world power is the building of the Erie and Panama Canals. The former linked the east coast with trade of goods with the Midwest, making Chicago a very important port. The latter gave us access to two oceans and helped with global trade and naval might. He also credits the two Roosevelts as our greatest water presidents, with Teddy building the Panama Canal and buying watershed rights in the west. FDR built many dams to create hydro-power.

I mention this now, as Solomon has been a staunch advocate for addressing our water problems before it is too late. Flint-like problems exist in several cities right now. Yet, this goes beyond Flint, as our planet is drying up our water resources and it is noticeable by satellite pictures. It is also being made worse by climate change, which the Department of Defense says is one of the greatest threats to our planet. And, The World Economic Forum echoes these concerns with the global water crisis being the number one risk in their 2015 Global Risks report followed by climate change inaction. Solomon is adamantly against fracking as the amount of water wasted is huge per frack. He also notes that not only climate change will make the water crisis worse, but so will over-population.

Finally, the man who predicted the housing crisis two years before it happened, who is featured in the movie “The Big Short,” has only one investment right now. He is buying up water rights. Yet, outside of the Flint issue which is being spoken to by Clinton and Sanders, no candidate is addressing our water concerns and only one Republican candidate admits that climate change is a problem, John Kasich, with both Democrats being vocal about it. These might be questions we want to ask our candidates about, especially with Department of Defense and World Economic Forum noting their concerns.

*In Duke Energy’s own reports, it noted that climate change would worsen expected levels of water evaporation from their reservoirs by 11%. One of the drawbacks of less water not often thought of is the power companies need adequate water to convert into steam to turn turbines to power the generators for electricity. It mattes not whether the steam is being heated by nuclear, coal, or natural gas, the process needs water.