It Doesn’t Make Sense To Fight Over Impossible Water Pipes

My grandfather told me an interesting story once. When he was a kid, he realized that the desert was, in fact, quite dry in the Southwest. He remembers asking his dad (who I was fortunate enough to actually know a little as a kid) how all the new people moving in were going to get their water. My grandfather’s still sharp as a tack pushing 90 years old, but it seems he’s always been sharp, because that’s a hell of a question coming from a kid in the late 1930s.

How everyone will get that water is a problem generations of politicians, engineers, and voters have been grappling with for the better part of a century. Sadly, though, most of the big thinking happened when the Colorado River had record flows, leading to everyone getting a cut of a big pie that ended up shrinking in recent decades. But taking water from the mighty Colorado did solve a lot of problems for people in Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Some Of The Existing Water Projects

I’ve written about this quite a bit over the last couple of years, but here are some notable water projects we should think about when looking at the Colorado River.

The most well-known project is probably the Colorado River Aqueduct. It runs from Lake Havasu on the Arizona-California state line and gives people all over southern California clean fresh water to drink. It carries that water 250 miles across rough terrain, almost requiring a series of pumps, canals, and filters to work. The American Society of Civil Engineers called it one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of American Engineering” in 1955, as it was no small project.

Another important project moving water from the Colorado is the Central Arizona Project. This canal runs from the same lake that California’s straw comes out of, but goes east to the Phoenix metro area and Tucson. This canal system spans 336 miles, and was an even greater engineering challenge, but it could have ended up being even longer, as plans called for expansion into parts of New Mexico. The system uses 2.5 million megawatt-hours of electricity annually to pump the water up the 2900 feet of elevation required to deliver the water around Arizona.

New Mexico did end up with some water from the Colorado, though. The San Juan-Chama Project moves water from a tributary of the Colorado to a tributary of the Rio Grande, allowing water that would have ended up in the Colorado to get to cities like Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and many other small towns.

None of these projects (or other smaller diversion projects) would work without the dams. There’s the Glen Canyon Dam, which allows Lake Powell to fill with water storage and the Hoover Dam that holds back Lake Mead. As you’ve probably heard, both of these reservoirs are drying up, with everything from World War II era boats to the bodies of Las Vegas mob victims in barrels appearing in Lake Mead.

Using Systems In Place Makes More Sense

While it would be great to set up desalination plants along the coast and pump the water in massive pipes all over the Southwest, that’s a massive undertaking. Instead, people hatching schemes to get even more water would rather dump water from the Mississippi River into the Colorado River.

On the surface, this would make sense. With all of the insane amounts of money the United States has already spent preparing to move water from the Colorado River, putting more water in the river would make it possible for everyone to just keep doing what they’re doing. If the water was put in somewhere upstream of Lake Powell, you’d end up with several large reservoirs that could be filled up to give water to everyone who got so much water from the Colorado in the past when the Colorado had better flows.

Nothing Is Too Impossible To Argue Over

Taking such a huge volume of water from the Mississippi River and getting it into Colorado isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, though. Such a project, in terms of distance, volumes of water, and terrain, would dwarf all existing projects. It would make for a project that becomes a new engineering wonder of the world. Financing all of that construction and then financing the operations would be insane.

But like anything in politics, the seemingly impossible nature of the task doesn’t stop people from arguing over it. A recent letter to the editor of the Desert Sun, a newspaper in a dry part of California, expresses the feelings that surround this issue. The letter’s author expresses dismay at the disapproval such a project has in the midwest (where the water would come from) and then goes on to say that California should just pump desalinated water from the ocean so the state doesn’t have to rely on the Midwest for anything.

“So please keep your muddy water. We’ll figure this out via our own state governments. But just remember, what goes around comes around, should you need our assistance in the future. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for an answer. You might find our number unlisted.” the author says.

Neither Project Seems Very Likely

The problem with these arguments is that neither project seems very likely, so it’s silly for people closer to the coast and people in “flyover country” to be at each other’s throats over it. People in the US need each other more than we need to be fighting with each other, so we’d better learn to live with not only giving each other things we need, but doing better at not needing so much.

The cost of either desalination or pumping Mississippi water to western states is just too astronomical to be worth considering while there are still other options on the table. One of the biggest problems is clearly visible from the air on Google Earth or Google Maps. There’s just too much green in western cities serving little purpose other than decoration. People moved into the desert and then wanted to pretend they didn’t live in the desert.

If we get to the point where we really can’t do anything better so make do with water, having arguments over megaprojects might make sense, but for now, we really need to be focusing on other things. Perhaps most importantly, we need to focus on not making this problem worse with uncontrolled climate change.


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