The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Are you going to be thirsty or hungry in the future?

As I’ve warned before, aquifers are being massively depleted, and it’s happening in places that grow food.  California, which is in drought, is now draining its aquifers especially fast.  Note also that fracking uses immense amounts of water.

This is also a problem in other nations, most notably India, where some farmers are already losing their farms due to aquifer depletion.

Expect to move to massive desalination, and attempts are on to find cheaper ways to desalinate water.  Combined with cheap solar, this may be feasible for some areas.  Interior continental areas, however, may not find it so useful.  Still, we can expect project to build desalination plants and massive canals driving the water into the interior.

The question with this, assuming it is done, will be who does it: public or private, and how regulated they are.  Even if water is theoretically available, it may be much more expensive than it is now, and we can expect that to make food even more expensive.

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  1. alyosha

    I’ve been following de-sal in California. There is one plant presently under construction in Carlsbad (between LA and San Diego), but I’m sure this was started before the drought. I’ve read that state government is trying to work out the regulations for these plants, because – I don’t know the details, but can imagine – it’s important to get a plant right.

    It’s maddening to some that we’re breaking ground, with public funds, on a bullet train that will initially run between San Francisco and LA, while the drought is parching the state, especially its all-important agriculture. But then, an ambitious project like a bullet train takes many years to get all the ducks lined up, approved and funded. The drought has really only reached mass consciousness in this last year, 2014.

    This delay is compounded by the fact that the drought is only evident when you travel outside the heavily populated areas. Los Angeles has buffered up enough water in reservoirs or in contracts with suppliers to be able to insulate its residents from thirst for about a year. And so despite all the pictures we see of dramatically fallen water levels in this or that lake around the state, the grass is still green here, under clear blue skies. Effectively, this drought we keep hearing about is happening somewhere else.

    What will be interesting is what happens next. Agriculture, which is a huge part of the economy here, and the biggest water consumer, will certainly demand action. The political machinery is, for now, in the hands of Democrats and Governor Jerry Brown, who’ve done a good job at repairing the state’s finances after years of neglect (California’s infamous $38 billion deficit is no more). The bullet train is probably the most radical thing they’ve done. De-sal is not a priority, yet.

    The Republicans are almost completely out of power in California. Their radical agenda cannot summon a majority here. Because the Central Valley is conservative, I can see a Republican emerging from this area, championing de-sal – it would be a way for them to become relevant again. How de-sal will happen – through private or public money is an open question.

  2. Scott

    If this trend continues (and it will) expect to see a discussion of moving water from the Great Lakes and Canada to California and the American Southwest. It’s the kind of project the right wing would love, combining in one fell swoop opportunities for big companies to make lots of money and yet another demonstration of the mastery of Man over stupid nature. Of course, the environmental consequences would be disastrous. The only question is whether we can even pretend to have the financial resources to pull this off.

    The real focus of water worries, though, should be China. All of the projections I see of China becoming the hegemon of the 21st century overlook the fact that the country simply doesn’t have enough water — and I don’t think the Russians will be willing to divert any from Siberia. The old Soviet Union actually thought of a similar project — moving water from the great rivers of Siberia to Soviet Central Asia. Which brings up the question: what happens when the water shortage really starts to bite in China, and the Chinese are looking at all that empty space, with all that beautiful clean water, up north? My advice — visit Lake Baikal while you can.

  3. Dave

    Well, it’ll be paid for by public dollars and then privatized once the infrastructure is in place and the preventative maintenance costs can be ignored. Assuming we don’t have massive crop failures and the concomitant social fracturing first.

  4. lots of food

    You have stated numerous times in other blogs that we have plentiful supplies of food and we know how to grow it, it’s just that incentives are misaligned to get food to the people who need it, creating waste and power struggles between classes.

    It’s not a matter of running out, as this blog post aims to depict

  5. Ian Welsh

    And I have also stated in multiple blog posts that I expect that to change in the future: there will just not be enough food to go around.

  6. different clue

    California grows most of the fun food for the nation. It is more fun to spend the winter eating
    California citrus/lettuce/cauliflower . . . than to spend it eating Michigan potatos/soybeans/cabbage. But if the light, lively and delicious agriculture of California shuts down for lack of water, we will still survive on our dull and boring old potatos and corn and soybeans and cabbage . . . and maybe a parsnip and a turnip for Christmas and other special occasions. We won’t be happy, but we won’t be hungry.

    I don’t know how the Canadians will react to NAWAPA . . . hopefully bad enough to prevent it . . . but I think that if the Sun and Subsidy Belt tries to take water from the Great Lakes, that enough Great Lakestanis have enough knowledge of how to blow things up to where no pipeline would survive the attempt.

  7. Stuart Morris

    > Still, we can expect project to build desalination plants and massive canals driving the water into the interior.

    I think this is pretty unlikely. You used the term “cheap solar” earlier, but the term should probably be “solar marginally cheaper than it used to be”. Technological improvements to solar show an alarming trend toward severely diminishing returns (IE larger and larger tech investment for smaller and smaller improvements). And while solar is undoubtedly a preferable technology to use than fossil fuels, it’s unlikely to give us the huge energy levels that we’ve unconsciously become adjusted to.

    Which leads to this: desalination is an extremely energy-costly process, but pumping water uphill to the interior is beyond expensive. Even with the energy levels of the past, that’s been too expensive to do. Instead, a much lower energy solution will probably be used; moving people to where the water is.

  8. Ian Welsh

    The Chinese are already building a huge manmade river/canal into their interior. America may not do megaprojects any more, but America is no longer where the show is.

  9. Lisa FOS

    You’re correct Ian. Most of the west is incapable of doing such projects anymore.
    We don’t have the drive or the skills to do it any longer.
    Heck much of the west (inc Germany) can’t even maintain its current infrastructure, let along build any more.

    What little we do is funneled into corrupt projects, that are useless, or downright harmful, but enrich insider corporations.

    We built a water pipeline here in Victoria that will never be used. Then the biggest desalination plant in the world…that also will never be used….All at insane costs as the insiders ripped the projects off, right, left and centre.

    We are too stupid and corrupt now to do any sensible things.

  10. Stuart Morris

    > The Chinese are already building a huge manmade river/canal into their interior.

    Yes, but not uphill from the sea. Water is heavy.

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