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.