The ongoing drought in the West has revived old pipe dreams. Readers of the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs, Calif., have been conducting a debate, via guest editorials and letters to the editor, about the desirability of piping Mississippi River water out west to relieve chronic droughts.
On June 30, reader Don Siefkes wrote a guest editorial with the title, “We could fill Lake Powell in less than a year with an aqueduct from Mississippi River.” He proposed a pipeline direct from the Old River Control Structure in Louisiana, with windmills along the route boosting the pumping power. That contribution sparked a lot of responses, pro and con. One reader worried that piping Mississippi River water west could bring in invasive species. More to the point, towboatman Matt Crea of Maple Grove, Mo., responded that the Mississippi River needs that water to support navigation.
Ideas about tapping Mississippi River water to relieve drought-stricken areas in the West go back decades, along with similar water-transfer schemes from the Missouri River. The Bureau of Reclamation did a thorough study of the idea of pumping Mississippi River water to Arizona in 2012, concluding that the project would cost $14 billion (in 2012 dollars) and take 30 years to complete. As recently as 2021, the Arizona state legislature urged Congress to fund a technological and feasibility study of a diversion dam and pipeline scheme to harvest floodwater from the Mississippi River to replenish the Colorado River.
Similar ideas have been suggested about Great Lakes water. In 1982, the Corps of Engineers studied and rejected a proposed diversion of Great Lakes waters to recharge the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of water for many Midwestern farms.
Water from the Great Lakes was part of a national water policy proposed in 2007 by then-presidential candidate Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. In 2019, in a twist on the pipeline ideas, the state of Minnesota had a request to allow up to 500 million gallons of ground water from an area just outside the Great Lakes Basin to be shipped by rail to the Southwestern U.S.
The proposed pipelines would have to fight gravity, complicating the projects and enormously increasing their expense, since most of the proposed destinations are at a higher elevation, or would require the pipelines to cross the Rockies. The carbon footprint of any such proposal would be huge.
In 2021, when asked about the feasibility of a similar pipeline project (in this case from Oregon), the California Department of Water Resources replied, “[T]he feasibility of a multi-state water conveyance infrastructure, the extraordinary costs that would be involved in planning, designing, permitting, constructing and then maintaining and operating such a vast system of infrastructure would be significant obstacles when compared to the water supply benefits.”
Every study done so far has concluded that the scale and expense of such projects make them wildly impractical, to say the least.
Besides, according to California figures, state residents are using 2.6 percent more water this January than they did in January 2020, before the state declared a drought emergency, despite water shortage alarms. In the Palm Springs area and the Imperial Valley, water use is up by 19 percent over 2020 levels.
Before floating impractical pipe dreams to divert Mississippi River water, the western states need to have hard conversations about water conservation.