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Can We Solve Drought By Piping Water Across the Country
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Can We Solve Drought By Piping Water Across the Country

Christopher Flavelle


Why don’t we create a national acequia system to capture excess rain falling primarily in the Eastern United States and pipeline it to the drought in the West? Carol P. Chamberland, Albuquerque, N.M

American history has some precedent for the idea of taking water from one community to give it to another. Los Angeles built an aqueduct in 1913 to transport water from Owens Valley (230 miles north) to support its growth.

However, the project, which cost $23 million at the moment, was a major upset for Owens Valley residents. They were so angry about losing their water, they decided to dynamite the aqueduct. Repeatedly.

Although there are numerous water projects in America today, it would be impossible to build a pipeline covering a large portion of the country. The distance between Albuquerque, for example, and the Mississippi River — perhaps the closest hypothetical starting point for such a pipeline — is about 1,000 miles, crossing at least three states along the way. To transport the water all the way from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, it would require piping it at least 1,800 m across five states.

The engineering and permitting issues alone would be difficult. And that’s assuming the local and state governments that would have to give up their water would be willing to do so.

China dealt with similar challenges to build a colossal network of waterways that is transferring water from the country’s humid south to its dry north. But of course, China’s system of government makes engineering feats of that scale somewhat more feasible to pull off.

It would be simpler to just build desalination plants on the West coast of the United States, according to Greg Pierce of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab, University of California, Los Angeles. He said that desalination is expensive and energy-intensive, and communities in the West should focus on other steps such as water conservation and recycling before moving to desalination.

“It’s not worth it,” Dr. Pierce said of the pipeline idea. “You’d have to exhaust eight other options first.”


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