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May 28, 2009


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There is a congruence between the national economy of the past 10 years or so and the Arizona growth machine. We saw consumer spending and housing replace productive endeavor as the primary economic engine in our lives. And much of that was predicated on a kind of hysteria, one compounded of millenialism and positive thinking. No limits here except for the sky.

But there are, of course, limits. Water is the most obvious one but there's also Peak Oil. A place that exults in unsustainable development is not just mocking the gods, it's setting itself up for a sudden and cruel fall.

We would have told ourselves a story regardless of the circumstances. It's our nature to believe. So, given the circumstances, it's probably understandable that we'd do what we could to perpetuate an inherently fraudulent scheme. You can look at people like Bob Rubin and Larry Summers and realize if the elite thinks like that, so will less gifted movers and shakers.

It's all good, as Kunstler likes to say. The story may be dark but at least it's interesting.

Actually, U.S. water use seems to have been stable since 1985, despite population increases.


Of course, that data is for 1950 through 2000, and here we are nearly ten years later, but I'd be surprised if the use trend had changed significantly for the worse.

Incidentally, golf courses, at least here in Phoenix, almost all use effluent these days. I'm not sure how sanitary that is (all you nail-biters better watch it on the back nine), but it's sustainable.

Of course, Mr. Talton is talking about a regional problem, and Phoenix's share of regional resources in particular. And recent trends in global warming (which have just been estimated, using a new model, to be twice as bad as earlier estimated) bode ill for a resource that depends on snowfall and gradually melting runoff for the bulk of the river water he's referring to; potential problems may include decreased precipitation, early melt-off (which is a problem for a steady source of water, since existing aquifers can only hold so much), and increased evaporation loss.

Incidentally, I had a (probably dumb) idea while thinking about Mr. Talton's blog item: since gaseous hydrogen and oxygen can be produced from water (H2O) by the addition of energy to overcome activation barriers, I wondered if water and energy could be produced by combining gaseous hydrogen and oxygen under pressure. I don't have time to research this now, so if anyone knows anything about this, please post a comment. Later, I'll see what I can find.

I worked on 4 of the 12 sections of canal that take the CAP from the Colorado River to Fountain Hills. Even though it was designed in the 50's and fought its legal battles in the 60's, it didn't start construction until the middle 70's and didn't finish until the early 90's.

The popular sentiments that Jon speaks of continued to change during all that time. There were more and more questions about whether this was a good thing to do.

Due to the goverment's concern over growing dis-satisfaction, they chose to build it piecemeal, scattering dis-connected projects over the entire length of the canal, specifically so they could say in court- "If we stop now, everything we've done will be useless. You have to let us fill in the missing pieces."

To illustrate what I mean, the canal was divided into segments called "Reaches" and numbered sequentially from the Colorado to Phoenix, 1 through 12. The pumping station that would take water out of the Colorado was one of the first projects, since it entailed a long tunnel through the mountains. But Reach 1 was one of the last pieces to be built. My first project was Reach 2, and though other jobs had been out to bid, and my company got some of them, we got Reach 3 also and did them as a single project. That is the only time that was possible during the entire project.

After finishing Reaches 2 & 3, I went to a related project in California for a year and then came back to Reach 12- the opposite end of that section! Another contrator got Reach 5b at about the same time. Afterwards I went back to do Reach 4. While my company also was working on Reach 9. Reach 5B was not bid for some time and I left Arizona before Reaches 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 were started. The primary reason for this sequencing was to defuse public resentment and make winning legal challenges easier. I know because the Bureau of Land Management brass told me so.

Another reason was to prevent the incremental growth of resistance along the line of construction. We moved into an area for two years and then moved out. We (or another contractor) would come back a couple of years later to fill in the missing peices, allowing popular sentiments to lose focus.

There are other costs and affects of building a canal 25 years after designing it, but I'll leave that for another post.

Mr. Pulsifer:

One problem with your plan is the cost of collecting the hydrogen in sufficient concentrations to start the water manufacturing process.

High school science classes can demonstrate both reactions on small scale and even then they use bottled hydrogen. The amount of hydrogen in the atmosphere is low enough to make a large-scale operation improbable.

I don't have time to lookup whether the actual reaction you suggest is endo- or exo-thermic, but the net is almost certainly a loss.

It occurs to me that sewer gasses have signifigant methane (I have another Phoenix story about about that- 27th Ave and I-10, I believe) so it might be feasible to collect sewer gas and split it into hydrogen and carbon and use the H2 with naturally available oxygen as you suggest. (The leftover carbon could have many uses)

Buford, I found this:

"Given the energetics presented above, there is a strong thermochemical bias for the production of water over hydrogen peroxide when H2 and O2 are reacted together. For instance, when hydrogen gas is burned in the presence of oxygen, a large amount of energy is released and water is produced as the major product."


Apparently, both energy production and water production are much easier in uncontrolled, large scale events, as opposed to highly controlled environments like fuel cells (where things get "complicated").

But of course, there are three major factors: volume of gas necessary (huge, to produce huge amounts of water); the source of gas; and cost of both the basic gases and of the water/energy production process.

Obviously, energy produced by the process itself will offset costs, but only to the extent that such energy is recoverable during the process. Presumably a major portion of released energy would be thermal (heating the water) which could then be used in steam turbines: once the heat had been extracted from the water to power turbines for electricity production, the cooled water could then be recycled into municipal water systems where it would be processed as needed to insure full potability.

At present, most hydrogen is made from fossil fuels, so that's a non-starter.

There is a new, clean, carbon-neutral hydrogen generation process using a nanotechnology catalyst operating on ethanol. The problem there is that even though the plants grown to produce ethanol also produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, plants require large amounts of water in the form of irrigation...doh!


There's plenty of hydrogen in outer space. Now if we can only build a long enough straw...

Seriously though, I wonder if we can't kill several birds with one stone if various kinds of energy/water/atmospheric problems are addressed in a holistic fashion, especially with the weaknesses or cost-factors of parts of the process being offset by other parts...just an idea.

P.S. Regarding Buford's waste treatment idea for producing hydrogen gas, I found this:

"Hydrogen gas was continuously produced by treating glucose-containing synthetic wastewater with sewage digester sludge. . .The hydrogen gas content in the biogas was in the range of 40–60% and no methane was detected either case."


Incidentally, the cheapest method of desalinization is the natural kind, where evaporation from oceans produces fresh rainwater. Most of that rainwater goes unused, at present, being re-evaporated or rained into the oceans (which make up large portions of the earth).

The problem is that catchment systems are generally expensive. There have been some communities in India, however, which used local volunteer labor to hand-dig huge (football field sized) pools, which were then lined with plastic sheeting. The projects worked so well that even months after the monsoon season ended, there was plenty of water left, despite the fact that the locals had invited neighboring villages to drink their fill. Of course, it's a question of scale, too.

Another idea that occurs to me is the creation of artificial rivers and deltas which take oceanwater inland to lower than sealevel areas, in which soil and plant filtration provides natural desalination along the way. There may be a few choice geographical areas whose topology would lend themselves to this, but again, the expense would be enormous.

This piece generated interesting musings in science and public policy. In Arizona and at the Republic, Talton always raised the level of debate, whether people agreed or disagreed.

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