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As I See It

Hal Sundin

There is an old axiom that says “Oil and water do not mix.” Yet they have one crucial truth in common: Neither resource is unlimited, yet mankind’s demand for both is increasing exponentially. This does not bode well for our future.

On the surface of it, it would appear that oil is the more crucial to our future because it fuels our automobiles, trucks, trains, airplanes and ships, all of which are essential to the transportation of people and goods on which our civilization is so highly dependent. It is also the raw material for the plastics industry whose products are so much a part of our daily lives. Yet we are faced with the fact that oil is not a renewable resource and that within the next generation oil production will begin to decline as the world starts running out of oil. Of course, before 1859 when the world’s first oil well was drilled, the United States and the world functioned quite well without oil. But that was when the U. S. population was only 31 million compared with today’s 285 million, and world population was 1.1 billion versus today’s 6 billion, and the world’s transportation needs were served by wind, coal, and the horse.

However, water is far more crucial than oil to the survival not only of civilization, but to the survival of man, himself. We could live without oil, but we cannot live without water to drink and to raise our food. And unlike oil, for which there are alternative energy sources, there is no substitute for water.

There are only two ways to reduce the demand we are placing on these two resources. They are conservation and reduction in our population.

Unfortunately, the leadership in our country (the most profligate in the world in its use of water and oil) seems determined to give little attention to conservation. Instead they are pushing with all their might on desperate measures to create more supply.

Drilling everywhere in sight for more oil is obviously a short-sighted temporary measure which only feeds our dependency on oil and will make it all that more difficult to cut back when the supplies begin to dwindle. Far better to reduce consumption as quickly and as effectively as possible to make the world’s finite supply last as long as we can.

Fortunately, water, unlike oil, is a renewable resource. As long as it continues to rain, the rivers will flow, filling our lakes and reservoirs and recharging the ground water. But as present conditions in the West are telling us, rain (or snow) is a fickle resource and we must recognize that there will be periods of drought when water resources are stretched to their limits. And if our population continues to grow those periods will become more frequent and more severe.

Those who are enamored with dams are shouting that we can build our way out of this problem by creating more dams on more streams. What this suggestion fails to take into account is that by storing more water in more reservoirs we will soon reach a point of diminishing return. In the hot, dry, windy climate that we have in the West, and at the higher altitudes at which these reservoirs would be built, evaporation would consume a very high percentage of the stored water. Annual evaporation rates under these conditions can be as high as twice the rate of 10 gallons per square foot, which is typical of more moderate climates and lower altitudes. Ten gallons per square foot equals more than 250 million gallons per square mile. Therefore, under conditions that exist in the arid West, the loss to evaporation could be as high as half a billion gallons per year for every square mile of water surface!

So we again come down to the hard fact that conservation measures offer the only real solution to the looming shortages of both oil and water. We very well may ultimately be faced with the necessity of prioritizing the uses of both of these resources. The use of oil products will have to be strictly rationed with priority being given to essential uses such as raising and transporting food products. Irrigation for agriculture will have the highest priority, household water use will be restricted, and watering of lawns and golf courses will come last.

Even with these austere measures in place, we will ultimately be unable to meet “essential” needs if population growth is allowed to continue. In the face of a world of finite resources, an ever-increasing population is a “treadmill to oblivion.”

Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.


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