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How Power Generation Threatens Water Supplies, And Climate Change Threatens Both

Jeff Spross, Climate Progress
The United Nations’ World Water Day 2014 is this Saturday. In its honor, the International Energy Agency is releasing its latest analysis of the intersection between the world’s power generation and its water use. The numbers are pretty bracing. Of the world’s freshwater supplies, 70 percent are locked up in the ice caps and glaciers, and almost another 30 percent are underground and hard to reach. Only about 0.3 percent is actually on the surface and easily accessible. Of that measly 0.3 percent, only 11 percent goes to municipal uses, including direct consumption by humans. Seventy percent goes to agriculture and farming, and 11 percent goes to industrial uses. That last figure includes power generation, and it’s the intersection of energy and water with which the report is concerned.


Water is consumed at nearly every stage of energy production, especially when it comes to fossil fuels. It’s used in the hydraulic fluid in oil and natural gas fracking; it’s pumped into oil and gas wells to enhance recovery; it’s used to cut and suppress dust in coal mines; it’s used to wash coal before it’s burned; it’s used to make the slurry in which coal ash is stored after it’s burned; huge amounts are pulled in by coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants, both to cool things down and to generate the steam that spins the turbines; huge amounts are also consumed in the agricultural sector to produce biofuels; much smaller amounts are used for similar purposes for solar plants and concentrated solar power setups; and of course it’s stored in reservoirs for hydropower generation.

This also brings up the difference between withdrawal and consumption. Water that’s merely withdrawn for energy production is eventually returned to its source. Water that’s consumed is not. And the ranges of withdrawal and consumption are generally quite higher for nuclear and fossil fuel power than for wind or solar photovoltaics…

(19 March 2014)
Link to report

Dry Fields, Dirty Water

Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue
America’s 20th century experience with water and food perfectly reflected a growing nation and its productive agricultural economy. Citizens agreed on national goals. Legislation was approved. Mammoth public investments were made. The result was that from one end of the country to the other water flowed free and clean from elaborate water works — great western dams, reservoirs, and transport canals, deep Great Plains wells and giant spider-like sprinklers, and from thousands of pumps and miles of pipes.

Water in America’s 20th century was so plentiful, so available, that farmers used what they wanted and most Americans took it for granted.

America’s experience with water and food in this century also fits its time. The very same water supply and transport networks that irrigate the nation’s grain, fruit, and protein bounty also encourage production practices that cause waste and foul the nation’s rivers, lakes, and groundwater supplies. The enormous quantities of fossil energy needed to operate the water works, process the food, and transport it to market contribute to climate change that dries the nation’s important food basket regions.

But faced with fast changing ecological trends that put the nation’s water and food supply in jeopardy, America exhibits little of the national resolve it once had to address the challenges. The country, by and large, is not developing new ideas about pollution control, making new investments in water conservation, and inventing new and environmentally friendlier production practices that respond adequately to new conditions.

This is one of the central findings of Choke Point: Index, Circle of Blue’s penetrating assessment of water supply and consumption in three iconic American agricultural areas – the Great Lakes in the country’s Midwest, the Ogallala Basin of the Great Plains, and California’s Central Valley…

The Thirsty West: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

Eric Holthaus, Slate Magazine
The last time water levels were this low, in 2010, federal officials contemplated worst-case scenarios of forced cuts to Las Vegas—of both electricity and water. It didn’t happen then, but the drought this time around is worse.

The lake is now expected to reach a new record low of 1,080 feet by April 2015 and to cross the first trigger for downstream water cutbacks at 1,075 feet shortly thereafter. By summer 2015, the water supply to Las Vegas itself could be affected if an $817 million tunnel project—currently months behind schedule—isn’t yet completed. That project, conceived as a way to extend Lake Mead’s usefulness in the face of climate change, is designed to suck water from the lake all the way to the very bottom—a point long after even the turbines of Hoover Dam would have to shut down, possibly for good.

Even money can’t buy water when there’s not enough to go around. The new tunnel can’t be finished fast enough. As the magnitude of the current drought started to hit home, construction of an impromptu tunnel designed to buy the larger project a few months of time was approved late last year. Officials described the newest tunneling project as an “emergency meant to avoid an emergency.”…
(March 2014)

World’s 18 Most Water-Stressed Rivers

Andrew Maddocks and Paul Reg, World Resources Institute
The world’s 100 most-populated river basins are indispensable resources for billions of people, companies, farms, and ecosystems. But many of these river basins are also increasingly at risk. As water demand from irrigated agriculture, industrialization, and domestic users explodes, major rivers on several continents are becoming so depleted that they sometimes fail to reach their ocean destinations. Add climate change, nutrient and chemical pollution, and physical alterations like dams and other infrastructure development to the mix and it’s clear that many communities rely on water resources that face an increasingly risky future.

WRI’s Aqueduct project recently evaluated, mapped, and scored stresses on water supplies in the 100 river basins with the highest populations, 100 largest river basins, and 180 nations. We found that 18 river basins— flowing through countries with a collective $US 27 trillion in GDP —face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress. This means that more than 80 percent of the water naturally available to agricultural, domestic, and industrial users is withdrawn annually—leaving businesses, farms, and communities vulnerable to scarcity…
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(20 March 2014)

Sandra Postel: Are Americans Facing Reality About Water?

Post Carbon Institute

Still a highly relevant 2010 video from PCI for World Water day.

Water splash teaser image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.