My grandfather told me an interesting story once. When he was a child, he realized that the desert was, in fact, quite dry in the southwest. He remembers asking his dad (whom I was lucky enough to know a bit about when I was a kid) how all the new people moving in were going to get their water. My grandfather is still quick-witted at 90, but it seems like he was always quick, because that’s one hell of a question coming from a kid in the late 1930s.
How everyone will get this water is a problem that generations of politicians, engineers and voters have wrestled with for the better part of a century. Unfortunately, however, most of the big reflections happened when the Colorado River saw record high flows, leading everyone to get a piece of a big pie that has ended up shrinking over the past few decades. But drawing water from the mighty Colorado has solved many problems for people in Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona.
Some of the existing water projects
I’ve written about this extensively over the past couple of years, but here are some notable water projects we should think about when looking at the Colorado River.
The best known project is probably the Colorado River Aqueduct. It runs from Lake Havasu on the Arizona-California border and provides Southern Californians with clean, fresh water to drink. It carries this water nearly 250 miles over rugged terrain, requiring a series of pumps, channels and filters to operate. The American Society of Civil Engineers called it one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of American Engineering” in 1955 because it was no small project.
Another major Colorado water project is the Central Arizona Project. This channel starts from the same lake where the California chaff comes out, but runs east to the Phoenix metro area and Tucson. This canal system stretches 336 miles and was an even greater technical challenge, but it could have been even longer, as plans called for expansion into parts of New Mexico. The system uses 2.5 million megawatt hours of electricity per year to pump water up to the 2,900 feet of elevation needed to deliver water around Arizona.
New Mexico, however, ended up with water from Colorado. 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 reach 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 is the Glen Canyon Dam, which allows Lake Powell to fill with water and the Hoover Dam which holds back Lake Mead. As you have probably heard, these two reservoirs are drying up, with everything from WWII boats to bodies of Las Vegas mob victims in barrels appearing in Lake Mead.
Using incumbent systems makes more sense
While it would be great to install desalination plants along the coast and pump water in massive pipes all over the southwest, it is a colossal undertaking. Instead, people making plans to get even more water would rather dump water from the Mississippi River into the Colorado River.
On the surface, that would make sense. With all the insane amounts of money the United States has already spent to prepare for the evacuation of water from the Colorado River, putting more water in the river would allow everyone to continue doing what they do. If the water was placed somewhere upstream from Lake Powell, you would end up with several large reservoirs that could be filled to supply water to everyone who received so much water from Colorado in the past when Colorado had better throughputs.
Nothing is too impossible to discuss
Taking such a volume of water from the Mississippi River and funneling it into Colorado isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Such a project, in terms of distance, water volumes and land, would eclipse all existing projects. It would make a project that would become a new engineering marvel of the world. To finance all this construction and then finance the operations would be insane.
But like everything in politics, the seemingly impossible nature of the task doesn’t stop people from arguing about it. A recent letter to the editor of desert suna log from a dry part of California, expresses the feelings surrounding this issue. The letter writer expresses dismay at the disapproval of such a project in the Midwest (where the water would come from), then goes on to say that California should simply pump desalinated water from the ocean so that the state doesn’t have to rely on the Midwest for anything.
“So please keep your water muddy. We will find this through our own state governments. But remember, what happens comes back, if you need our help in the future. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for an answer. You might find our number unlisted. says the author.
No 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 “overflown country” to yell at each other. People in the United States need each other more than we need to fight each other, so we better learn to live by not just giving ourselves the things we need, but by doing better so as not to need it as much.
The cost of desalinating or pumping water from the Mississippi to western states is simply too astronomical to consider when there are still other options on the table. One of the biggest problems is easily visible from the air on Google Earth or Google Maps. There is simply too much greenery in Western cities that is just for decoration. People settled in the desert and then wanted to pretend they didn’t live there.
If we get to the point where we really can’t do anything better then get on with the water having arguments about megaprojects might make sense but for now we really need to focus on other things. Perhaps more importantly, we must strive not to compound this problem with runaway climate change.
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