Water Woes

January 31, 2019 0 Comments

If you could pick one thing people have done to improve the health and comfort of everyone on the planet, it would have to be management of water resources. The instantaneous availability of clean, fresh, healthy water in developed nations is something most people take for granted. Water is so ubiquitous and cheap that we have become a bit wasteful in its use.

One of the main concerns for those who study potential future anthropogenic global warming (AGW, aka “Climate Change”) is that we will run out of fresh water or that water resources will become unreliable and cause tension between different groups or countries.

One place in the world not likely to descend into war or chaos but might have to deal with water shortages in the near future is the American West. Those who have studied the climate of the American West have found that megadroughts of at least a couple of decades have been prevalent in past centuries (I have covered this a few times in the past). Many are expecting megadroughts to return in the near future, or could currently be in development right now.

If the current pace of development and emigration to the American West continues, someone will have to figure out where the water will come from. More storage is always an option. Building dams and reservoirs was the go-to solution during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, reservoirs have the unintended effect of making people more vulnerable in the face of a megadrought. Think about it. Vastly more people live in the western deserts than the natural environment could come close to supporting. Why? Because of reservoirs. A severe drought that lasts 2 or 3 years is easily survived as reservoirs are slowly drawn down. What about a drought of 4 or 5 years? Or 10 years? At that point, when the reservoirs go dry and rivers are down to a trickle, tens of millions of people in the American West will be in dire straits. No amount of skimping or rationing will be able to counteract the deadly lack of water. Not even close. It is also unlikely that enough water will be able to be shipped into the region to keep cities running. People will have to move or die. The human body can survive a lot longer without food than it can without water.

Considering the drought possibilities, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea that California has resisted building new reservoirs for so many decades. The state is already over-populated. Building more reservoirs might encourage millions more to move in and become vulnerable. At least they are trying to manage their water resources better than Nevada (mainly Las Vegas), which is draining lake Mead at a faster pace than ever.

There is hope! As usual, it come in the form of technological progress. New solar desalination methods are being developed and built right here in the U.S. Israel is currently operating the biggest and cheapest desalination plant in the world. It produces so much water that there is a surplus in the country. Analysts expect the price of desalinated water to drop to a very competitive 30 cents per cubic meter within 15 to 20 years. This is because of advances in materials science and energy which I have covered several times in the past, here, here, and here. One of the latest advances is the use of “pervaporation” membranes. The U.S. department of the Interior recently studied this method and casts it in a positive light for future desalination efforts in the American West.

Will our technology be able to head off water woes in the near future? I think so, but only time will tell.

Meteorologist Justin Loew

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