Could Nationwide Water Flow Solve This Woe?
July 2, 2021 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Why doesn't the US have a nationwide network of water distribution pipes to better manage droughts and floods?

My understanding is that the US has regional and/or national networks of pipes for oil and gas, and has long-distance electrical transmission lines / grids, but doesn't have anything similar for water.

There are rivers, reservoirs, and aqueducts, but those local and regional water management resources seem vastly inadequate to manage situations like the current drought conditions in the western US.

One obvious and prominent example of a water resources problem in need of a solution is found in the currently fallow fields in the central valley of California, a major producer of fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Of course, there are many complicated aspects to these matters, but my specific question is: if water is such a critical and valuable resource, why don't we pipe it around on a massive, long-distance scale like we do with oil, gas, and electricity?
posted by Dansaman to Law & Government (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
One part of it may be the energy needed- California uses a huge amount of electricity to pump water around (including over mountains).
posted by pinochiette at 11:22 AM on July 2, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A 2015 LA Times column: Import our water from wetter climes? It’s a pipe dream "“The expense and the politics is so unrealistic it’s a distraction from the projects we actually can get done,” says Lester Snow, a former state water director who heads the private California Water Foundation."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:26 AM on July 2, 2021 [8 favorites]

Actually, California's Central Valley is built on top of what used to be a massive lake and wetlands.
posted by aniola at 11:29 AM on July 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

"if water is such a critical and valuable resource, why don't we pipe it around on a massive, long-distance scale?"

Precisely because it is such a critical and valuable resource. No one wants to be the one to give away water, because they might need it later. And in some jurisdictions, giving away water might actually reduce the amount you're able to use later.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:38 AM on July 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

A 2015 LA Times column

Excellent and comprehensive link, Mr. Know-it-some.
posted by mark k at 11:43 AM on July 2, 2021

The sheer volume of water that would need to be moved is unimaginable.

Nature already provides such a system at global scale. We just broke it.
posted by spitbull at 11:44 AM on July 2, 2021 [11 favorites]

I mean, you've heard that thing about how it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond, right? So you have to keep the cost of a gallon of water significantly lower than the cost of an almond in order for this to be viable. Almonds are pretty expensive, sure. And water is cheap, but it's not free, and the further you transport it the more expensive it gets.

I pay about .7 cents for a gallon of water that is piped to my home from reservoirs ~75 miles away in a non-drought-prone part of the US with a pretty good water system. I pay about $8 a pound for almonds, figure 2 cents a piece if there are 400 almonds in a pound. If the almond growers were paying as much for water as I am, close to half of the cost of the almond would be water!

Obviously I'm combining a lot of rules of thumb here, and there are lots of things to pick at in my argument. I'm guessing almonds aren't quite as picky about water quality as I am, but also like I said I live in a non-drought prone part of the country so my water only doesn't even have to travel 100 miles. The nearest non-drought-ridden place to the Central Valley is a lot more than 100 miles. At some point it makes more economical sense to move the almond farms to the water rather than vice versa.
posted by mskyle at 11:45 AM on July 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

You'd more or less have to get approval from all the governors and premiers of the Great Lakes watershed in order to pipe water from there, and that is... unlikely; if nothing else it'd be political suicide. Not sure what other way would be even remotely practical (not that that plan is either).

From a Great Lakes perspective, at least, the water is not California's (or any other Western state's).
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:19 PM on July 2, 2021 [6 favorites]

The LA Times article is good, but I'd say it understates the political difficulties and guaranteed ecological disasters. California already has a monster network of pipes and canals but it pretty much all stops at the state border. Transferring water from one jurisdiction to another is a big big deal because nobody perceives themselves as having excess water. The water redistribution systems that are built within California are now widely recognized as a legacy of an age of hubris and for generations there will be fighting over how to mitigate the environmental disaster that they've created.

If you're interested in the topic, then Cadillac Desert is a bit out of date, but should still be a gripping read. It mentions plans that were floated in the 1970s about bringing Columbia River water to California.

The LA Times article talks about the impossibility of running a gigantic pipe down the I-5 corridor. However, a more recent proposal I saw was that a pipe should be offshore. How such a thing could be built to withstand earthquakes and all the other insults that nature will throw at it...well. But the bottom line is that Oregon and Washington (and the Endangered Species Act) will not tolerate the mighty Columbia turning into a trickle just so that Californians can live it up in the sun.
posted by polecat at 12:27 PM on July 2, 2021 [7 favorites]

Even with the pumping cost, multiple states look thirstily at the Great Lakes as a way to avoid having to learn to use water sustainably. Fortunately there is a multi-state compact in place, that I believe involves Canadian provinces on some level, around the lakes that makes it easy to veto such plans. So hopefully such a nationwide scheme will never take off. Despite how it appears, it’s better for the world to not drain lakes to solve temporary problems, because that incentivizes behavior that creates even more temporary problems.
posted by michaelh at 1:20 PM on July 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

You'd more or less have to get approval from all the governors and premiers of the Great Lakes watershed in order to pipe water from there

There's also the matter of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada. So, use of Great Lakes water has international treaty obligation ramifications, in addition to the domestic political ones tivalasvegas mentioned.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:36 PM on July 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yes, the multi-state compact itself is a domestic agreement but it incorporates the requirement that water transfers over a specific level be subject to a public review process and ultimately be voted on by a council consisting of the governors/premiers from all the Great Lakes states/provinces, so ultimately it would likely be a years-long process that would be strongly opposed, not just by environmentalists but by the general population.
posted by tivalasvegas at 1:43 PM on July 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm not a science-talker or anything but I imagine some combination of solar power+desalinization will be a much more sustainable, cost-effective and practical way to provide southern California with water. Y'all have lots of sun and salt water, right?
posted by tivalasvegas at 1:45 PM on July 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Desalinization gets sold as eco, but when I was in college, I was taught that it changes the local ocean ecosystem?
posted by aniola at 2:06 PM on July 2, 2021

The way we are using oil, gas, and electricity is not sustainable, and it's quite devastating for the environment. Indeed, gobbling up fossil fuels is what got us into the mess of not having enough water.

The Atlantic has a recent piece on water conflict in southern Oregon. It talks in part about what's happened when we've used too much water from a lake/basin/wetlands and offers up a real solution for water wars in the west:
So that’s how you end a water war. Respect Indigenous sovereignty. Make water allocations predictable and reduce the amount of water going to crops and pastures over time. Fix lake-water quality through nutrient management and wetland restoration. Take out the dams. I reckon you could do it all with $1 billion—beer money, these days—and it could serve as a model for the entire West.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:27 PM on July 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

At the moment, desalinization at scale burns carbon at scale. It is no solution.
posted by spitbull at 2:32 PM on July 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

The answer is transmitting electricity and pumping oil is a sustainable business. Piping water is not.

Water may be crucial, but it's not something we want to PAY for, at least a lot (unless it comes in a special bottle).
posted by kschang at 3:24 PM on July 2, 2021

Look at the size of aqueducts, they’re large because water is used in large volumes. It’s economically feasible to move much smaller volumes of oil and gas because of their value and they’re used in much less volume. Pipelines have to have pumps to force contents up hills, canals have locks, etc. Moving water around is non-trivial. Also, a lot of water evaporates from aqueducts, so it’s really wasteful. Climate crisis, of course, is changing water availability quite rapidly and isn’t as predictable as we’d like. And it will likely get worse.

It’s a holiday weekend in Maine, but I’m still delighted by the gentle soaking rain we’re getting, and our drought is nothing like as severe as those in the west.
posted by theora55 at 3:26 PM on July 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Pipelines go into the ground, where they are subject to a lot of stresses (soil movement, earthquakes, temperature changes) and also there are things like mountains in the way. The expense of maintaining those pipes and their associated pump stations would be enormous.

The US is just very very big, honestly, and piping water from one side to the other is an engineering nightmare.
posted by emjaybee at 9:22 PM on July 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Even in a much smaller country (the UK) we don't have a national water grid. This is mainly because water is heavy to transport, which makes long distance movement expensive given that water itself is not expensive as people have mentioned. Another factor is the difference in chemical composition between water sources which can have an impact when the water is discharged again. For the last few years, and looking forwards into the future, we do have lots of big interconnecter schemes going ahead which will link different networks together allowing for more resilience when there are problems in the network, or during droughts.
posted by plonkee at 2:24 AM on July 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

some combination of solar power+desalinization

I heard someone on the radio saying California will eventually be forced to follow Saudi Arabia and Israel down this path. Said water bills would increase by 500% but if the drought continues, there's really no alternative.
posted by Rash at 2:53 PM on July 3, 2021

desalinization at scale burns carbon at scale

Solar power.

If only there were areas in California that got a lot of sunshine & weren't much use for anything else.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:40 PM on July 5, 2021

You failed to quote the first clause of my comment: “at the moment.”
posted by spitbull at 4:57 AM on July 10, 2021

Since desalination doesn't need to be on demand, you could build dedicated solar when you build the plant and have it run only when the power is available. You don't need to deal with storage or other thornier grid issues.

The capital costs are significant, and you need to include money to manage brine disposal--I saw one plant that built a pipeline to disperse the waste across a fairly large area of the ocean floor. It occurred to me that this means we could get a water plant leak, if the pipeline broke, that could devastate local coastal ecosystems.
posted by mark k at 9:10 PM on July 10, 2021

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