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Geo-Joint: Transporting Water

Posted on September 08 2016

Recently, the southern part of Louisiana experienced flooding of near-biblical proportions with some areas receiving over two feet of rain in three days. Many parts of the East Coast find themselves similarly drenched when hurricanes move up the coast, or simply as a result of slow-moving depressions that are well-fed by tropical moisture. Oregon and Washington are famously green from all their rain, and periodically get swamped with an overabundance. All this while the southwest and California plod though multi-year droughts that have them desperate for water sources. Not enough is coming from the sky, so groundwater is being drawn out at rates that are completely unsustainable. Some places can get hit with a double-whammy. Texas suffered drought for nearly five years before widespread flooding filled reservoirs and groundwater basins – along with causing a huge amount of damage – in May of 2015.

It’s clear that water is ever-present, but not evenly spread around. Many wonder why, with all the technology, ingenuity, and raw construction ability we have, the soggy parts of the country couldn’t help out the desiccated parts to make everybody happy. Would that it were so easy. Water is heavy stuff – eight pounds to the gallon. And unlike oil, which is routinely transported by pipeline, a gallon of water doesn’t pack a lot of punch. Per capita usage by Californians ranges from around 50 to many hundreds of gallons – daily. Any pipeline carrying water from afar needs to be large. Consider also that the areas of high rainfall or flood and the parched places that want it may be at significantly different elevations, or have mountains between them. The cost of pumping huge amounts of heavy stuff uphill is prohibitively expensive. Even T. Boone Pickens, a Texas billionaire with extensive experience with pipelines, gave up on plans to move water all the way across his massive state. Canals can also move water, but they lose about half of their volume to evaporation and leakage, can’t always travel a straight line due to elevation changes, need fencing and cement lining, and must cross under all roadways in their path. All that gets extremely costly.

This is not to say that there are not some very large water-moving enterprises already in operation. In the early 20th century, Los Angeles famously “legally stole” a huge supply of water from the Owens Valley to its northeast, and in the 1960s began moving even more water down the Central Valley for hundreds of miles. But these routes are almost all downhill, the greatest exception being the Tehachapis and a few other contiguous mountain ranges that block the way just before the water spills into the Los Angeles Basin. Enormous pumps are needed to lift the water up 2,000 feet – they use as much electricity as a small city. Similarly, LA draws water from the Colorado River and uses five pumping stations to accomplish the task. These waterways and pipelines connect dry areas to sources that, at least in times gone by, were fairly reliably wet. The system has been a success in terms of hydrating a thirsty megalopolis, but wouldn’t pencil out for flood relief. That is to say, you can’t build a gargantuan pipeline system at a moment’s notice when a locale here or there is suddenly underwater, nor can you devote billions to build such systems to multiple places in the hopes of siphoning off some future possible flood.

Even if there are areas that fairly regularly get inundated or have a lot of standing water – think the Mississippi River or the Great Lakes – there are man-made constraints on developing water-moving schemes. Water is a valuable commodity, and those places with a lot of it are not necessarily of a mind to give it away, or even sell it. The Great Lakes states, for instance, have been fighting various plans to draw off their resource for most of a hundred years. Ask an Oregonian or a Washingtonian what they think of helping out dry old California, and get ready for some strong invective. Politics is a powerful constraint on water rearrangement.

Lastly, (although it shouldn’t be last) there is the environmental concern. Lessening the abundance of water in a particular ecosystem might not seem like a big deal to the recipients, but that wet ecosystem evolved with reliance upon copious supplies of water. Upset the balance, and things will change. The Snowy River Scheme in Australia moved a lot of water to dry parts of the country, but wreaked havoc on Snowy River ecology, analogous to LA’s effect on Mono and Owens lakes. In addition, the movement of water brings not only the desired liquid, also but creatures and plants both macro- and microscopic as they float and swim into new habitats. Predators that kept such biota in check in their home environment probably don’t exist in natural storage basins far away. During its flow in purpose-built canals and reservoirs such invasives might not cause a problem, but that water gets shifted around when boats are trailered from here to there, and organisms can go with it into natural lakes. One way or another, species get around, and rarely to good effect.

All these factors weigh heavily on the desperate plans of those facing economic collapse due to dryness. Farmers in eastern New Mexico long used to drawing water from the now-dwindling Ogallala Aquifer hope to build a pipeline to the Ute Reservoir on the Canadian River. Others in southwest Kansas would like to see an $18 billion pipeline to pump Missouri River water uphill for 360 miles to their water-starved farms. Neither has the funding needed to proceed. In this new era of changing climate and less-predictable rain, hoping for giant waterworks projects is probably futile. Better to change to less water-hungry crops, find more ways to conserve, and to reclaim used water that was once considered waste.

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