Colorado River crisis: Can water be piped from Mississippi, Missouri?

This story is one part of a broader series about ways to save water from the drying Colorado River. See the full project here.

Engineers and water experts knew for decades that growth in the Colorado River Basin would eventually hit a tipping point. That is, unless the states depending on the river found a new source of water.

One way to do that, civil engineer Royce J. Tipton wrote in 1965, would be to pipe water in from somewhere else, also referred to as “importing” water. One scheme considered in the 50s and 60s (but never developed), the North American Water and Power Alliance, proposed to pipe water from rivers in Alaska and Canada south into the Colorado River’s headwaters, among other places.

Water transfers like this are already in use across the world and have been for millennia (think of the Roman aqueducts). An example in the Colorado River Basin would be the Central Arizona Project, a canal system transporting river water across hundreds of miles of desert and into the heart of Arizona for cities like Phoenix and Tucson.

The Southern Delivery System in the nearby Arkansas River Basin pipes water from Pueblo County more than 60 miles north to Colorado Springs, Fountain and Security.

These canals and pipelines are expensive to build, though, and take years. The Southern Delivery System, for example, cost an estimated $985 million and took about four years to build (the planning phase took much longer than that). And during construction, the process became mired in local and federal permitting processes.

A decade ago, states in the Colorado River Basin wrapped up a three-year study, which considered piping water to Denver – and beyond – from the Missouri River. Then- U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dismissed the idea as politically and technically infeasible.

“At one time they talked about hauling icebergs down from Alaska,” Jennifer Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at Colorado State University’s Water Center, said.

Piping water from the Midwest and up a vertical mile would present an engineering challenge to say the least, Beard said. But aside from that, working with private, local, state and federal landowners would spark decades of litigation and permitting processes.

“It shouldn’t even be under consideration,” Dan Beard, former U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, said.

Gary Wockner, head of the nonprofit Save the Colorado, was less concerned about the technical possibilities and more concerned about one dry region taking water from another place.

“You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Wockner said.

Not to mention in the Midwest, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are experiencing droughts of their own, as have the Columbia, Klamath and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

Or there are legal protections in place that would prevent states in the Colorado River Basin from looking elsewhere. Like with the Great Lakes, which hold an estimated 90% of North America’s fresh surface water, a 2008 compact prohibits communities from even applying to divert water unless they’re at least partially within the basin.

“It’d be a political war wherever you took the water from, for sure,” Wockner said.

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