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Peak Water and Its Lessons: Life After Peak Oil

Updated on August 30, 2011

The concept of a resource reaching a peak refers to the point where about half of the available available supply has been used up. Extraction of oil in the United States, for example, peaked, that is, reached its maximum, in about 1971. Since then it has no longer been possible to meet increased demand with increased production. So we began to increase imports.  World production of oil has apparently not yet peaked, but some time in the coming decades, it must.

Does that mean that the whole world faces unprecedented challenges? Must life after peak oil mean massive price increases, worldwide shortages, and resulting unrest as nations indulge in an every-man-for-himself scramble to secure their own supplies? Not if we learn to respond to it as we did when the United States reached peak water!

Peak oil graph
Peak oil graph

It appears that the United States hit peak water in 1970. No one noticed at the time. But when we reached our own peak oil at about the same time, we began to import. As demand increased, imports increased, and everyone in the world noticed.

The rest of the world, and many of our own citizens, have come to suspect that our entire relationship with the Middle East centers on securing our oil supplies. Yet when we reached peak water, demand stabilized even though both the American population and economy has continued to grow.

Why does life after peak oil look so bleak and dangerous when this country reached its own peak oil and peak water at the same time? Simply because we could find a new supply of oil, and we're paying a high geo-political cost for it, whereas we could not find a new supply of water.

Colorado River delta from NASA's Visible earth collection. Follow link at left for an explanation.
Colorado River delta from NASA's Visible earth collection. Follow link at left for an explanation.

The response to peak water caused relatively little pain. That's not because water, unlike oil, is a renewable resource. Peak water means that we were draining certain aquifers and river basins more quickly than nature can recharge them. The Colorado River has not reached all the way to the ocean since some time in the 1960s.

Peak water passed without notice because people (and corporations and governments) began to practice conservation practices that confined water usage to more nearly sustainable levels. We still have a long way to go in that direction. As a society we still waste a tremendous quantity of water.

The point is, we do not have water riots or sustained public wrangling over water shortages, or any of the consequences of growing demand for a peaked-out supply.

Oil cannot be renewed in any way, as water can. Life after peak oil will become a crisis or not depending on our ability to stop using it. Worldwide, we have to find new ways to fuel our cars (etc.), generate electricity, and heat our homes. We would also benefit from finding substitutes for petrochemicals.

The United States has made a beginning toward sustainability in water usage. Governments at all levels need to lead, follow, or get out of the way of efforts to find alternatives to oil and the financing and infrastructure needed to make them work.


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    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks, bulkdive. What struck me as I looked into this issue is that peak oil in the US and peak water out west occurred at about the same time, but with vastly different responses. I am dismayed at the commercials that brag that we get two thirds of our oil from North America when it's the third we import that's causing so many different kinds of trouble for us. Chevron is one oil company that at least advertises that it's becoming an energy company by directly investing in alternative fuels. To the extent that there's real substance behind the ads, that's good news. It's especially good news because I see no leadership coming from the federal government in the foreseeable future.

      Meanwhile, although there's still a long way to go on water issues, if enough individuals, corporations, and other local stakeholders start doing enough of the right things to reduce demand, we can go along way toward easing the pressure to import so much oil whether the feds do anything useful or not. At least with the current gridlock in which the feds aren't doing much at all, they can't do anything really stupid.

    • bulkdive profile image

      bulkdive 6 years ago from Marina, Ca

      Great Hub. The privatization of water is going to get out of hand very soon. As we continue to put our eggs (ie. food, energy, water, air?) in the same basket we better start looking around for that one thing that is going to tip the whole thing over. I'm thinking that kick will come from the decline of petroleum.

    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Yes, BDazzler, we should certainly develop biodiesel and methane production. Think of all the methane produced by hog waste lagoons that is currently doing nothing but polluting the air! (My dogs like to eat bunny berries, BTW.) And they burn it off at landfills. Why not use it? And as for biodiesel, since it can be made from used cooking oil and other waste products, why should we waste any more fertilizer and energy on making ethanol from crops like corn? More thoughts on one of my blogs at

    • BDazzler profile image

      BDazzler 7 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

      Good points. Unlike water, which has a natural renewing cycle, oil does not ... my particular favorite alternatives include bio-diesel and methane gas production. Dang near every form of vegetational decomposition generates CH4. There's already a proven infrastructure for delivery and transition from ground sources to manufactured sources is well within current engineering capabilities.

      My ex-father-in-law ran a substantial portion of his farm on "bunny berries" (methane generated from rabbit droppings).

      I appreciate your long term view.

    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks, James. Prophets of doom have been predicting some kind of looming disaster at least since Malthus. I can't think of any instance when they've been proved right. Like with your horse manure story, someone always comes along with an idea that solves the problem--and sets the stage for the next doomsday scenario.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      A right fine article here. I think people will learn to get by without oil. 100 years ago, people in New York predicted that their city was be under nine feet of horse manure within thirty years. They saw no way out. Each of the 150,000 horses in Manhattan produced 22 pounds of horseshit a day—that's 45,000 tons a month. This was a stinky place and the flies!! Just like that the automobile was mass produced and the unsolvable crisis was solved. :D

    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks, Captain Jimmy. And you're right about something bigger. We have to find a sustainable way to use finite resources, preferably without going through any greater crisis than what's happening now. Reaching peak water and not noticing for 40 years shows that it's possible.

    • Captain Jimmy profile image

      Captain Jimmy 7 years ago from WV

      Good Hub! useful info! This is a part of something much bigger!

    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks to both of you, askpowers and Papa Sez, for your comments. I pray that those parts of the Philippines will be able to balance supply and demand without social unrest on top of everything else.

    • Papa Sez profile image

      Papa Sez 7 years ago from The Philippines to Canada

      Hi APG, there are some areas in the Philippines that are already in water crisis. Peak oil/water concept here is good as predictors for other areas that might be heading for trouble as well.

      Regards, Papa Sez

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      askpowers 7 years ago

      Very true information, i really like it,

      thanks for sharing such useful information