Is the US Already Past the Point of Peak Water?

splash of water photo

Photo via Ishmael Orendain via Flickr Creative Commons

Peter Gleick, an expert on water issues at the Pacific Institute, poses a troubling question: are we already past peak water in the US? Compared to areas like Africa, India and China, we seem to still have water supplies to last awhile, but that doesn't mean we actually have much time before serious water issues take hold. And in some locations like the southwest, that's already happened. Gleick points out three areas where water hits peak limits -- renewable water, nonrenewable water, and ecological water -- and notes that we seem to have already passed a tipping point on all three. Peak water has been a concern for several years now, with many nations already experiencing extreme water shortages, even to the point of violence. But here in the US, it seems that water will continue to flow from faucets indefinitely. If only that were the case... In the southwest where it is arid in the first place, water crunches after years of drought are already serious, and water supplies even in more precipitous areas need to be tightly regulated. When it comes to peak water, the US is certainly not immune.

In an article on Huffington Post, Gleick writes of three types of peak water: renewable, where water flows are constrained over time; nonrenewable, such as groundwater sources, where we pull more than can be naturally replenished; and ecological, which is the point beyond which the cost to the local ecology of using the water is higher than the value of using it for human consumption. According to Gleick, we seem to have hit the limits of all three.

There is strong evidence that the United States may have already passed the points of peak water, including peak renewable, nonrenewable, and ecological water, in many watersheds, especially (but not exclusively) in the more arid west. Indeed, when we look at data on total water withdrawals and use in the US... it shows that maximum water use occurred more than 30 years ago, and that we are now using less water overall, and much less water per person, than in 1980.

The bad news is that this suggests we have reached, or passed the point of peak water -- as is increasingly obvious in the regions I've mentioned above.

The good news, however, is that we have been able to continue to grow our economy and meet the demands of growing populations, with less and less water, through smart technology, regulations, education, and water conservation and efficiency programs. I think we're in a transition to a new way of thinking about and managing our water. And the sooner the better.

Indeed, the rise of smart water as a focus among technology companies and local municipalities is promising -- we're seeing more and more cities installing smart water metering systems and more businesses beginning to factor water consumption into their accounting in the same way that they factor in electricity use. The water footprint of consumer goods and foods is also becoming equally as important as the carbon footprint. Even though we're getting smarter about water use, having to share resources with more and more people still puts a strain on supplies.

While we are coming up against some tall, thick walls in regards to water supplies, we are also learning to innovate and manage our resources better. While bad practices abound, especially in agriculture and manufacturing, we are indeed making progress. Hopefully, it is speedy enough.

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More on Peak Water
We Use How Much Water? Scary Water Footprints, Country by Country
Water Crisis Coverage on TreeHugger
Peak Everything: Learn about Peak Water
Population 4x More Important Than Climate Change on Water Shortage

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