Can Water Megaprojects Save The US Desert West? (Part 2)

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In part one of this article, I covered the American West’s water problems, as well as some of the ways they have been solved with big engineering projects so far. Now, with climate change and growth both pushing the limits of water supplies, people are asking for even bigger projects, like a pipeline from the Mississippi River to somewhere in the Colorado River’s basin. Let’s talk about those ideas, even bigger ones, and why none of them might be a good idea.

Arizona state legislators asked Congress to consider a pipeline that dumps Mississippi water into the Green River, but there are alternate possibilities.

Some plans call for a connection to come through southern Colorado and dump water into the Colorado River system just upstream of the San Juan-Chama Project, in the Navajo River. This would put the water into the Colorado upstream of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, so it could supply most of the biggest water users with the most projected growth (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, and Southern California).

Talking with other CleanTechnica writers on our server, we came up with several alternate ideas. I proposed coming into New Mexico roughly following US Highway 54, and then roughly follow US 60 until I-25. From there, a pipeline could follow the Rio Puerco, and then cross the continental divide, dumping water into an arroyo that would put it into the system. Other writers suggested hiring The Boring Company to bore tunnels for a pipeline under mountains, allowing for a straighter shot and fewer climbs.

As massive as such a project would be (some plans call for multiple pipes over 12 feet in diameter), there’s an even more massive plan that has been floating around for decades.

NAWAPA – A Truly Huge Water Project Idea

In 1961, the wealthy owner of an international engineering firm watched a fire ravage southern California. Instead of worrying hopelessly about drought and fire like most people, he decided to find a way to end California’s droughts forever. The man, Ralph Parsons, also made plans to end all of North America’s droughts with what he called the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA).

The plan: to build a truly massive system of canals and reservoirs that cover the needs of most of the North American continent.

The centerpiece of the plan was the creation of a 500-mile long reservoir. By pumping water into the Rocky Mountain Trench, which is 1000 miles long and 2-20 miles wide. To get all of that water, canals and pumping stations would redirect excess water from Alaska and parts of Canada that usually flows into the ocean. Once full, the system could provide 10x more than the greatest projects conceived before it.

This water would then be distributed via a network of canals to most of southern Canada, parts of the eastern United States that get dry, the US Midwest, and most of the Western US. Finally, some of the water would be sent into Northern Mexico.

Such a project would be extremely expensive, but it certainly would benefit people. More land could be farmed all over the continent, there would be drinking water for many more houses and businesses in cities going forward, and droughts would be less of a problem for people.

It turns out that an American plan to distribute mostly Canadian water to mostly US destinations doesn’t make Canadians very happy, and Ralph Parsons didn’t get enough input from Canadians before pushing for the plan. Sure, they’d get a lot of hydroelectric power and broader access to water shipping in the interior of the country, but that has never been enough incentive to basically give up Canada’s sovereignty over their water supply.

Most recently, the plan has been advocated for by Lyndon LaRouche, a political activist who made NAWAPA a plank in his platform during presidential campaigns.

Reasons To Not Do These Huge Projects

While there would certainly be benefits to these big projects, they come with some pretty big risks and downsides.

First off, there are environmental issues that come with big water projects. The biggest problem that’s already happening with existing projects is invasive species. Connect one river to another, and some living things will come through in the water. For example, the Colorado River Aqueduct has a problem with small shellfish (which don’t belong in the Colorado River, either), which damage the water moving equipment if left unchecked. To protect the system from these critters, they have to shut everything off two weeks per year and let the canals dry out annually.

Environmentalists opposed to a Mississippi River canal are also concerned that reducing the Mississippi’s flow could destroy the river delta in Louisiana. Reduced flows would affect life accustomed to the conditions of the delta, and stop the delta’s natural growth. Silt settlement could affect life and the flow of the river from a diversion dam all the way down to the Gulf.

Future supplies are also not guaranteed by megaprojects. Sure, there’s a lot of unneeded and unwanted water in the wetter watersheds in North America. Farmers want the stuff out of their fields, and nobody wants flooding. That doesn’t mean that unchecked climate change couldn’t also affect the wettest watersheds, too. Even the mighty Mississippi has already had drought problems that affected water flows, with restricted shipping a problem in 2012. There’s no guarantee that the Mississippi couldn’t one day have problems like the Colorado River does.

These Projects Are No Substitute for Climate Action, Conservation

Climate change may already be to the point where some of these big projects are unavoidable, but these projects shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we’re stuck with needing some water diversion to keep the American West alive, reliance on these projects only increases vulnerability to future problems in the places where we draw water from.

There are also a variety of known and unknown consequences that come with big projects. The knowns include invasive species, the disruption of habitats, and stoppage of fish passage in waterways. Unknown is what bad things could happen reducing flows in a wet watershed and increasing flows in a historically drier river system. It’s never been done to the extent these projects imagine, so we simply don’t know what we’re in for putzing around with complex systems like this.

There’s also a risk that these future diversion projects, like those that came before, can make big engineering projects seem like a perpetual solution to man-made problems. By allowing people to avoid adapting to drier climates, we could get the public in the habit of not adapting, instead asking for grander and grander projects that cause increasing problems.

Even where necessary, these megaprojects should be avoided if at all possible, and then only done when we’re left with no other choices.

Featured image: Hoover Dam/Lake Mead historical levels. Image by US Bureau of Reclamation (public domain).

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1955 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba