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Issues & Insights

A Bold Fix For The West’s Water Woes

The nation’s Western states are facing severe, and worsening, water shortages. There are both consumption and supply problems, and neither will be easy to fix. However, we have a remedy for the latter.

More water is used in America per capita than almost anywhere else in the world — more than three times as much as in China and 15 times more than in Denmark. Not surprisingly, the highest domestic water use is in the driest Western U.S. states: Arizona residents use 147 gallons per day compared to just 51 gallons in Wisconsin. That’ll come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the heavily irrigated golf courses in places such as Phoenix and Scottsdale.

The situation in California, with its outsized population and recurrent droughts over much of the past decade, is particularly tenuous. The state has received significant amounts of rain during the past few years, but that has not remedied the most serious impact of many years of drought, which has been exacerbated by a growing population and expansive agriculture: namely, a severe deficit of groundwater. For years, farmers in the Central Valley have liberally extracted water from the region’s aquifers to compensate for reduced supplies from canals and aqueducts.

As water levels have dropped, farmers, homeowners, and municipalities have dug deeper and deeper wells, but such measures only prolong the inevitable: The incidence of well failures is increasing.

Most proposed solutions, which have focused on conservation, have been unpalatable, while few have focused on ways to increase supplies. There’s the rub: America does not have a water supply problem; it has a water distribution problem.

Therefore, to address the water shortages in Western states, we propose a major new infrastructure project that could revolutionize water distribution in the U.S. and further development of the western half of the nation: long-distance pipelines.

In much of the West, rain is sparse, and except for parts of the Pacific Northwest, water comes largely from a variety of non-precipitation sources. California, for example, has a hodge-podge of sources, one of the most important of which is the Colorado River, which supplies most of the water for farm irrigation and urban areas in the southern part of the state. Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Mexico all share the river’s resources.

The largest eastern river, the Mississippi, has about 30 times the average annual flow of the Colorado, and the Columbia has close to 10 times.  Water from these and other large rivers pours unused into the sea.

Thus, the West’s chronic water shortages result from a failure to appropriately redistribute our nation’s abundant total water resources.

We currently transport oil, but not water, across America, although water can move through pipelines, tunnels, and aqueducts with perfect safety over long distances on a virtually limitless scale.

We envision a major combined federal and private hallmark program for the nation – an Interstate Water System (IWS), which would rival in importance and transformative potential the Interstate Highway System, whose formation was championed by President Dwight Eisenhower. America already moves some water and stores it in man-made lakes, and the IWS would be designed to expand the country’s water-related infrastructure by crossing state boundaries to transport water from where America has an abundance of it to where it is needed. With modifications and expansions over time, no part of the U.S. need find itself short of water.

The IWS is practicable. Assume that an initial goal might be doubling the water flow, averaging about 20,000 cubic feet per second, to Colorado River system reservoirs. Pumping Mississippi River water to about 4,000-5,000 feet altitude would likely be needed to supply reservoirs Lake Mead (altitude 1,100 feet) and/or Lake Powell (altitude 3,600 feet). We estimate that fewer than 10 power plants of typical one-gigawatt size could provide the energy to move water halfway across the nation to double the flow of the Colorado River, while gravity-driven flow turning turbines below its reservoir lakes would eventually regenerate much of the input energy required.

If feasibility studies confirm the basic assumptions, the implications would be enormous. The project would create innumerable jobs, provide many construction and other business opportunities, and facilitate national growth and development. Interstate highway and railroad routes suggest cross-country paths for an IWS. Energy supply is not limiting.

The IWS would evolve over years, as did the Interstate Highway System. To make it happen, we need recognition of the great long-term importance of the fundamental idea, and the determination to pursue it at the highest levels of government and industry. The sooner we start, the better.

Schulman, a physician, scientist, former professor, and chairman of Genetics & IVF Institute, lives in the American East and West. Schaefer is a chemist, former president of the University of Arizona, and chairman of REhnu, Inc. Miller is a physician, molecular biologist, and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.

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12 comments

  • And while we’re at it, let’s tap Canada, the OPEC of fresh water. (Maybe even annex them.)

  • We see the results of diverting Colorado River water in order to fulfill the needs of So CA. What will be the result if the Mississippi River or the Columbia is all diverted so that at times of the year, no water reaches the oceans from those sources? It’s not wise to mess with Mother Nature.

    • no such thing as ‘mother nature ‘ … the great “CREATOR” is who is charge … maybe … just maybe we should play by “HIS” rules and not mankind’s …….

  • what this article does not cover or point out is the ability of turning waste waters of the different cities into reusable/drinkable water and industry also waste a lot of water that is never reclaimed. what about having industry reclaim its water for public use??????

  • That’s right take water from the Mississippi which has gone dry several times over the last 20 years to give to California which has done nothing to trap the precipitation they do receive and let it run into the ocean instead. And here’s at hough, build desalination plant instead of taking water from other regions and causing even more water supply issues.

  • This article is absurd.
    The water does not go “Unused” into the ocean.
    Fresh water is critical to coastal estuaries.
    The reason that the Colorado river does not make it to the gulf of California any more is precisely because California steals all of the water and in the process has destroyed the largest estuary west of the Mississippi. Now, the author’s brilliant plan is to rob the Gulf coasts estuaries.
    California needs to solve their own water problems.

  • The Mississippi’s waters support transportation, recreation and wildlife. You may not steal or buy any of it. Desalinate of you must, but don’t even think about taking our waters.

  • If anybody in CA had an ounce of cojones he’d tell the demoncraptic tyrants in charge to stop dumping millions of gallons of good rain water into the Pacific every year, invest some of the $36 BILLION the have in reserve in a few new reservoirs, and the problem would be fixed for at least a few centuries. The first step to fix all that is wrong in California is to get rid of EVERY politician with the demon sign (d) after their name.

  • I’ve been saying this for years. The right of ways are already in place to build these pipelines.

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Issues & Insights is a new site formed by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

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