Is pumping Mississippi water to Lake Powell and Lake Mead a solution or a dream?

Cedar Rapids, Iowa • Waves of torrential rain soaked California in the New Year. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada has increased to more than 200% of its normal size, and snowfall in the rest of the Colorado River Basin is also above average.

While much-needed water has improved conditions in the parched west, experts warn against claiming victory. About 60% of the region continues to suffer from some form of drought, continuing a decade-long spiral of water shortages.

“The drought is so critical that these recent rains are a bit like finding a $20 bill when you’ve lost your job and been evicted from your home,” said Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at the Arizona State University.

Over the years, one proposed solution has emerged: large-scale river diversions, including pumping Mississippi water to the parched West.

Just last summer, the idea sparked a firestorm of letters to the editor of a California newspaper. But the interest goes deeper. Most recently, in 2021, the Arizona Legislature passed a measure requiring Congress to study pumping flood water from the Mississippi into the Colorado River to boost its flow.

[Read more: Experts say pumping ocean water to the Great Salt Lake would cost a lot but help very little]

Studies and modern engineering have proven that such projects are possible, but would require decades of construction and billions of dollars. Politics is an even bigger obstacle to the realization of multi-state pipelines. But their public persistence illustrates the growing desperation of western nations to emerge from droughts.

“We can move water, and we’ve proven our will to do it. I think it would be foolhardy to dismiss this as not feasible,” said Richard Rood, professor of climate and space science and engineering at the University of Michigan. “But we need to know a lot more about it than we currently do.”

What is proposed and who is proposing it?

Formal large-scale water import proposals have existed in the United States since at least the 1960s, when an American corporation formed the North American Water and Power Alliance to redistribute Alaska’s water across the continent via reservoirs and canals. Widespread interest in the plan eventually fizzled out.

Stories of similar projects often share the same ending, from proposals in Iowa and Minnesota to those between Canada and the United States. But some smaller projects have become reality.

For example, a groundwater management agency in Kansas last year received approval to ship 6,000 gallons of water from the Missouri River to Kansas and Colorado in hopes of replenishing an aquifer. In northwest Iowa, a river has been repeatedly pumped dry by a rural water utility that sells at least a quarter of the water out of state. And there are several approved diversions that draw water from the Great Lakes.

(Jeff Roberson | AP) People walk toward Tower Rock to view the attraction, which is normally surrounded by the Mississippi River and is only accessible by boat, Oct. 19, 2022, in Perry County, Mo. amid a major drought in the west of the United States, a proposed solution keeps popping up: large-scale river diversions, including pumping Mississippi water into parched states.

Following Arizona’s push for a 2021 feasibility study for a pipeline, former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation last July investing $1.2 billion to fund projects that conserve water and more bring to the state. Among other things, the law allowed the state Water Infrastructure Revenue Agency to “investigate” the “feasibility” of possible out-of-state water import contracts.

To Larson’s knowledge, an in-depth feasibility study specifically for pumping water from the Mississippi River west has not yet been completed. He said he’s open to one – but doesn’t think it’s necessary.

“I think the feasibility study will probably tell us what we already know,” he said, “which is that there are much cheaper, less complicated options that we can invest in right now,” such as reducing water use.

Physically feasible – but politically?

In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation completed “what was then the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted in the Colorado River Basin,” analyzing solutions to water supply problems — including importing water from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

In the analyzed scenario, water would be channeled into the Colorado Front Range and areas of New Mexico to meet water needs. It would cost at least $1,700 per acre-foot of water, yield potentially 600,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2060, and take 30 years to build.

Another analysis emerged a decade later when Roger Viadero, an environmental scientist and engineer at Western Illinois University, and his graduate students evaluated proposals suggested in last summer’s viral editorials.

In their non-peer-reviewed technical report, they calculated that to move that amount of water, a pipe would need to be 88 feet in diameter — about twice the length of a semi-trailer — or a 100-foot-wide channel that’s 61 feet deep.

Experts we spoke to agreed the feat would be astronomical. However, it is physically possible.

“As an engineer, I can guarantee you it’s doable,” Viadero said. “But there are tons of things that can be done that are never done.”

Viadero’s team estimated that selling the water needed to fill the Colorado River’s Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the nation’s largest reservoirs — would cost more than $134 billion per penny per gallon. The cost of construction would add to that hefty bill, along with the cost of powering the equipment needed to pump the water across the western continental divide.

Buying land to secure water rights would also cost a lot of money, leading to an even greater obstacle to such proposals: the legal and political hurdles.

(John Locher | AP) A fisherman throws a cast net on the shore of Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on Friday, January 27, 2023 near Boulder City, Nevada, amid a major drought in the western United States keeps coming: large-scale river diversions, including pumping water from the Mississippi River into parched states.

Local hurdles include protecting endangered species, protecting wetlands, drinking water supply considerations, and protecting interstate shipping. Precedents set by other diversion attempts, such as those that created the Great Lakes Compact, also cast doubt on the political feasibility of a large-scale Mississippi diversion attempt, said Chloe Wardropper, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign , which deals with environmental management.

Cross-border pipelines would also affect ecological resources. The flow of the Lower Mississippi means less sediment is transported to Louisiana, where it is used for shoreline restoration. Diverting that water also means spreading problems like pollutants, excess nutrients, and invasive species.

The Mississippi Basin in particular does not always have enough water left over. For example, drought conditions plagued the region throughout 2022, raising concerns about river navigation.

“Nobody wants to leave the western states without water,” said Melissa Scanlan, a professor of freshwater science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “But diverting water from one drought-affected area to another is not a solution.”

An eternal idea

The idea of ​​a pipeline crossing the continent is not a new idea. But as water shortages grow more desperate in the West, the hurdles may one day be overcome.

“It’s possible that the situation could get so bad that there’s money out there that could overcome all of these obstacles,” Larson said. “It could be in the trillions, but it probably exists.”

Meanwhile, researchers are promoting more viable and sustainable options, including better water conservation, water recycling and less reliance on agriculture. Other forms of augmentation, such as desalination, are also gaining popularity as possible options nationally.

These will no doubt require casualties — but not as many as building a giant pipeline would require, experts said.

“To talk about pipe dreams when that’s not even feasible for decades, if at all… It’s a disservice,” Scanlan said. “People need to focus on their realistic solutions.”

This story is a product of Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, and funded by the Walton Family Foundation . The Associated Press Climate team contributed images. Is pumping Mississippi water to Lake Powell and Lake Mead a solution or a dream?

Justin Scaccy

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