Peter Gleick: ‘Zombie water projects (Just when you thought they were dead)’

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From Forbes (Peter Gleick):

Water transfers from the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River or Alaska and Canada to the arid southwestern U.S.

These are perennial favorites: people look at the vast amount of water in the Great Lakes, or flowing down the Mississippi River, or flowing north to the Arctic Ocean and think, gee, what could make more sense than to take that water and move it to where we really need it, like California or Arizona or Las Vegas. After all, we’ve been moving water around since the beautifully designed Roman aqueducts, and even earlier. But most of these mega-projects are zombies – killed off years ago, only to linger, undead.

Patricia Mulroy, who runs the Southern Nevada Water Authority, recently revived the idea of moving floodwaters from the Mississippi River all the way to Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to free up Colorado River water that could then be given to feed Las Vegas. Fear that similar projects would take water out of the Great Lakes led to a provision in the new international agreement signed by the U.S. and Canada that effectively prohibits transfers of water out of the basin because of fear that such diversions would lower the Great Lakes levels and threaten the health of fragile natural ecosystems. And of course there is the granddaddy of all water diversion proposals – called NAWAPA (the North American Water and Power Alliance) – proposed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a consulting/construction company to divert around 150 million acre-feet of water annually (ten times the flow of the Colorado River) from the Yukon, Copper, Kootenay, Fraser, Peace, and other Alaskan/Canadian rivers all the way east to the Great Lakes and south to the southwestern U.S. and even Mexico. And a smaller version of this zombie is the Million Conservation Research Group proposal (named after Aaron Million – if it had anything to do with the cost, it would be the Billion Conservation Research Group) to build a pipeline from Wyoming to eastern Colorado to take 250,000 acre-feet of public water to sell for private gain. Professor Robert Glennon from the University of Arizona quipped that he sees many obstacles to the project, “not the least of which is the Rocky Mountains.”

These mega-projects are certainly technically feasible: there’s no mystery to building dams, aqueducts, pumping plants, and pipelines. What kills these projects is their massive political, environmental, and economic cost. They would cost tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars and lead to vast environmental destruction and devastation. Half a century ago, we didn’t know about the ecological consequences of massive water diversions, or we didn’t care, but those days are over. On top of this, any such project would require unprecedented political and legal water sharing agreements and anyone who believes such agreements can be reached is living in a fantasyland. But that doesn’t stop these zombies from periodically coming back to life.

More pipeline projects coverage here.

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