The Ties that Bind: Population, Water, Energy, and Food

By Leon Kolankiewicz
September 13, 2010

What happens when a seemingly unstoppable force hurtles headlong into a truly immovable object? As their already enormous populations continue to grow recklessly, heedless of any and all looming limits, 39 million Californians and 310 million Americans are about to learn the answer to this ancient riddle.

We will learn the hard way that something has to give in such a collision. And it won’t be the implacable natural limits into which we’ve slammed.

A case in point concerns the ties that bind between population, water, energy, and food. Simply put – and one needn’t be a math whiz to grasp this concept – more people consume more fresh water and more energy – at a time when supplies of both are being used up.

There are ever more of us demanding ever more water and oil even as the Earth has ever less to yield because we’ve already taken so much.

Yet the relationship between overpopulation, water, energy, and food is even tighter and more tangled than at first blush, because it takes water to get energy and it takes energy to get water. And it takes both energy and water to produce food.

Increasingly, these entanglements are intensifying competition between energy and water users and food producers/consumers – that is to say, between all of us, since we all use energy, we all depend on fresh, clean water, and we all eat food. When competition stiffens, the number of losers grows.

This unfortunate reality is playing out in scores of places across the country, but perhaps nowhere as sharply as California, the bellwether state.

California’s Central Valley is perhaps the single most vital agricultural area in America. In the throes of yet another punishing drought, farmers in Kern County (in the southern portion of the Central Valley called the San Joaquin Valley) are receiving less than half their normal water allotment from federal and state water projects to irrigate their crops.

Agriculture is very water-intensive, and juicy fruits especially so. Producing a single orange requires 55 gallons of water, each peach 142 gallons. As a result of the drought, Circle of Blue (a network of journalists and scientists covering water issues) reports that tens of thousands of acres of farmland have been idled this year in Kern County alone.

Kern County’s $15 billion oil and gas industry is also very water-intensive. The heavy oil it extracts can be coaxed upward only by injecting enormous quantities of water and steam: 320 gallons for every barrel pumped to the surface. In Kern County, much of the water used by the oil industry comes from the very same source that supplies farmers – California’s sprawling network of aqueducts and canals that transport and deliver water captured from Sierra Nevada streams and snowmelt.

According to Circle of Blue, even as competing agricultural and environmental interests are pinched, squabbling over reduced water allocations in the San Joaquin Valley, the oil industry receives as much water as it needs, enough to irrigate up to 9,000 acres of orchards, row crops, and vineyards.

Across the country, such conflicts over scarce freshwater resources are multiplying and intensifying. The energy, agricultural and municipal sectors all thirst for ever more water.

Why? Because our large population continues to grow. Unless excessive immigration and fertility rates are curbed, it will soar from 310 million now to 440 million by 2050…and still be growing even faster than today. This is utterly unsustainable.

Yet this growth is such a sacred cow that not even environmentalists dare challenge it. To do so means confronting the notoriously prickly politics of immigration and family planning – as well as powerful business boosters and politicians who crave ever more consumers and ever more voters.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club see this as a no-win situation, so they avoid it like the plague. Instead they dabble and dither with more politically palatable projects, while avoiding this monumentally inconvenient truth.

Our business, political, and environmental elites are guilty of dereliction of duty. Ordinary citizens will have to muster the resolve to redirect America from the current collision course between population and resources. Otherwise, we will be left picking up the pieces from a long-predicted – and avoidable – impact.

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Leon Kolankiewicz is a wildlife biologist, environmental planner, and senior writing fellow for the Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), www.CAPSweb.org. He can be reached at mistymountainman77@gmail.com.
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