The great siphoning: Drought-stricken areas eye the Great Lakes — The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Great Lakes satellite photo via Wikipedia.

From The Minneapolis Star-Tribune (Ron Way):

Lake Superior is big, all right. It and the other Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the whole world’s fresh water and, get this, hold enough to submerge the continental U.S. under 10 feet.

Those far-off onlookers thirst mightily for the Lakes’ 6.5 million billion gallons of fresh water that, to them, just sits there before running off to the ocean. Wasted.

It’s easy for us lake-landers to dismiss such thoughts, but those in the American Southwest are up against a 17-year drought that keeps getting worse. After an unusually warm winter, it’s expected to worsen still more this summer due to a dearth of mountain snow that will again leave Colorado River flow far below normal, with forecasts of dry and very hot weather à la La Niña.

What’s beyond scary is that NASA computer models indicate that the West could be facing a 50-year megadrought, the first such event since long before Europeans even knew North America existed. Moreover, higher temperatures and wind wrought by climate change dry things out and increase demand for irrigation water while at the same time increasing already problematic evaporation rates from reservoirs and canals.

Primary water sources in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California are dangerously low. Benchmarks are the historically low Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam (built in 1930) and similar low levels of Lake Powell on the upstream end of the Grand Canyon. Las Vegas, which draws 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, has twice lowered its intake “straw” due to falling levels.

One relief option is desalination of ocean water, but scaling up that technology has proved frustratingly difficult and outrageously expensive. The largest existing plant, at San Diego, provides only 7 percent of that city’s needs.

Another option is to strictly restrict water use, but that’s politically dicey and can’t get much beyond talk.

Then there’s a plan to spend gazillions to capture several of Alaska’s free-flowing rivers with a grand network of dams, canals and tunnels to divert water south to the Colorado basin. It seems that the drought is getting serious enough so that even far-fetched ideas get a look.

So OK, now what?

To desert dwellers, an idea that makes intuitive sense is to pipe Lake Superior water to where it’s “needed.” Such a project would be staggeringly expensive but technically doable; besides, the Great Lakes surely wouldn’t miss, say, 50 billion gallons — would they?

The populace all around the Lakes is rock-solid against shipping any water anywhere, and advancing any diversion plan would set off political warfare.

Or perhaps one should say “renew hostilities.” This story isn’t new. In 2007, New Mexico’s then-Gov. Bill Richardson suggested a Great Lakes diversion when the Western drought was only six years old. Following bloodcurdling protest, fellow Democrat Jennifer Granholm, then Michigan’s governor, told Richardson to zip it. A year later the eight Lakes states, including Minnesota, adopted — and President George W. Bush signed — a compact banning diversions without concurrence of all signatories.

Plus, an international pact gives Canada (along with the federal government in D.C.) a veto over any transfer.

But because the ultimate power rests with Congress and the president, multistate compacts and international accords can be false security. What’s done can be undone, as evidenced by all the undoing from today’s Washington crowd. What’s more, some scholars say the compact could be vulnerable to legal challenge, especially if a national emergency were declared.

A political knockdown would pit the Midwest vs. Westerners accustomed to no-holds-barred combat for water (to the death in the Wild West) and who have tended, when all else failed, to get what they wanted by simply taking it (for example, the lands of indigenous tribes).

Fear the Westerners.