Outside Two Harbors, Minn., on a cliff overlooking the broad expanse of Lake Superior, you are overwhelmed by grandeur — shimmering water, crashing waves, a down-bound ore boat on the horizon, miniaturized by distance.
As you fill your senses, you may be unaware of the invisible others behind you — 2,000 miles or so behind you, to the southwest — eyeing the Great Lakes in another spirit, coveting all that water.
Lake Superior is big, all right. It and the other Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the whole world’s fresh water and, get this, hold enough to submerge the continental U.S. under 10 feet.
Those far-off onlookers thirst mightily for the Lakes’ 6.5 million billion gallons of fresh water that, to them, just sits there before running off to the ocean. Wasted.
It’s easy for us lake-landers to dismiss such thoughts, but those in the American Southwest are up against a 17-year drought that keeps getting worse. After an unusually warm winter, it’s expected to worsen still more this summer due to a dearth of mountain snow that will again leave Colorado River flow far below normal, with forecasts of dry and very hot weather à la La Niña.
What’s beyond scary is that NASA computer models indicate that the West could be facing a 50-year megadrought, the first such event since long before Europeans even knew North America existed. Moreover, higher temperatures and wind wrought by climate change dry things out and increase demand for irrigation water while at the same time increasing already problematic evaporation rates from reservoirs and canals.
Primary water sources in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California are dangerously low. Benchmarks are the historically low Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam (built in 1930) and similar low levels of Lake Powell on the upstream end of the Grand Canyon. Las Vegas, which draws 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, has twice lowered its intake “straw” due to falling levels.
One relief option is desalination of ocean water, but scaling up that technology has proved frustratingly difficult and outrageously expensive. The largest existing plant, at San Diego, provides only 7 percent of that city’s needs.
Another option is to strictly restrict water use, but that’s politically dicey and can’t get much beyond talk.
Then there’s a plan to spend gazillions to capture several of Alaska’s free-flowing rivers with a grand network of dams, canals and tunnels to divert water south to the Colorado basin. It seems that the drought is getting serious enough so that even far-fetched ideas get a look.
So OK, now what?
To desert dwellers, an idea that makes intuitive sense is to pipe Lake Superior water to where it’s “needed.” Such a project would be staggeringly expensive but technically doable; besides, the Great Lakes surely wouldn’t miss, say, 50 billion gallons — would they?
The populace all around the Lakes is rock-solid against shipping any water anywhere, and advancing any diversion plan would set off political warfare.
Or perhaps one should say “renew hostilities.” This story isn’t new. In 2007, New Mexico’s then-Gov. Bill Richardson suggested a Great Lakes diversion when the Western drought was only six years old. Following bloodcurdling protest, fellow Democrat Jennifer Granholm, then Michigan’s governor, told Richardson to zip it. A year later the eight Lakes states, including Minnesota, adopted — and President George W. Bush signed — a compact banning diversions without concurrence of all signatories.
Plus, an international pact gives Canada (along with the federal government in D.C.) a veto over any transfer.
But because the ultimate power rests with Congress and the president, multistate compacts and international accords can be false security. What’s done can be undone, as evidenced by all the undoing from today’s Washington crowd. What’s more, some scholars say the compact could be vulnerable to legal challenge, especially if a national emergency were declared.
A political knockdown would pit the Midwest vs. Westerners accustomed to no-holds-barred combat for water (to the death in the Wild West) and who have tended, when all else failed, to get what they wanted by simply taking it (for example, the lands of indigenous tribes).
The West sees some things in its favor, politically. One is mushrooming population that’s tipping the power balance in Congress. Another is the always-powerful agriculture industry in the West. And still another is that Western states stick together like fired clay to leverage their will over all things land and water. Besides, they’ll argue, water is a resource that, like oil, must be shared.
And so, a prediction: Within the lifetime of today’s newborn, Great Lakes water will be piped to the Colorado basin to relieve a region that by midcentury will be in the throes of an unimaginable water crisis.
This notion was advocated last year by NASA’s chief water scientist at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who added that national water shortages are more serious than most realize — and may be unsolvable.
On several levels, it’s frankly absurd to pipe water across the country to bail out overbuilt cities and nourish water-intensive crops in bone-bleaching desert. But growth-driven Westerners dismiss such talk. This war would come down to raw power politics, and it’s only a matter of time before the West’s political influence prevails.
Consider: Less than 80 years ago, North Dakota had more electoral votes than Arizona, and Phoenix was a remote outpost. Today, Arizona has more people than North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota combined. That kind of growth is evident throughout the Southwest, which means more and more members of Congress are being sent by dry states rather than by the water-rich Midwest.
It’s not realistic to think that pioneers more than a century ago could have foreseen today’s mess. Western settlement was blindly driven by Manifest Destiny back then, and land and water were both considered limitless.
Today, the West’s chief water user is agriculture, with three-fourths consumed by water-gulping crops like cotton, citrus, alfalfa and vegetables. Irrigated fields around hot, dry Yuma, Ariz., produce so many winter vegetables that nearly all of your salad comes from Yuma. Irrigated fields grow countless tons of alfalfa to feed livestock, crowded into giant feedlots nearby.
So much water is sucked from the Colorado to grow crops and quench thirsts that the river’s flow into Mexico is a relative trickle.
The Southwest’s water crisis is a result of dubious policy that pushed unsustainable growth, incented by federally financed dams, reservoirs and canals that delivered water at astonishingly low cost to cities and farmers.
Requirements that states and users repay the cost of building waterworks are often waived with little notice. Just one of these giant projects, the 336-mile concrete canal moving Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, cost $4 billion to build in the 1970s ($26 billion today) and many millions to maintain. Relatively little has been repaid to taxpayers, or ever will be.
Another problem is that governments allocated Colorado River water based on 1920s projections, when river flows were abnormally high. When more reliable tree-ring analyses later exposed major distortions in projections, the West went into collective denial and did little to rein in explosive growth.
So, why should Great Lakes water be shipped to a desert where unrestrained growth continues? It shouldn’t be, but debating this one will get you into a sticky wicket of the outsized influence of infrastructure (water works, roads, bridges, wetland drainage, etc.) in too often enabling inefficient and harmful growth. Genuflection to development has skewed urban and rural planning since long before the country’s founding.
Diverting water west would require a 900-mile pipeline from Duluth to, most likely, Green River, Wyo. There, the river flows south into Utah and joins the Colorado near Moab.
It would be a colossal technical and financial undertaking.
Lifting, say, 50 billion gallons of water from Duluth by 5,500 vertical feet over the Continental Divide to Green River would consume the power of several hundred plants the size of Xcel Energy’s nuclear generator at Monticello.
The power sources would cost tens of billions to build and operate, on top of which would be billions more to install and maintain the pipeline.
And while 50 billion gallons sounds like a lot of water, it would take 10 times that amount to dent the Southwest drought.
These are dizzying numbers, but it’s a straightforward bargain plan compared with capturing and moving water south from Alaska.
Either way, taxpayers would surely get stuck with the tab — as the West keeps building cities and growing crops in bone-dry desert.
Ron Way lives in Edina.