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Are Water Pipelines in the US a Pipe Dream?

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With drought and wildfires raging in the west and flooding in the east, running a water pipeline between the two has arisen as a possible way to drive adaptation to climate change. After all, if it is possible to pipe oil and gas around the country, then why not water?

The idea also aligns with many scientists’ belief that the United States’ water problem is one of distribution rather than supply: vast quantities of surplus water constantly flow into the sea from great eastern rivers such as the Mississippi and Columbia. Meanwhile, western rivers such as the Colorado have seen a nearly 20% fall in average annual flow over the past two decades.

The problem has even pitted western states against one another as they compete for scarce water resources. For instance, Utah currently faces opposition from California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Nevada to a proposed $2 billion water pipeline project that would funnel water across a 140-mile stretch to drought-stricken Washington County in southwestern Utah. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, at least 40 states can expect water shortages by 2024.

Establishing an Interstate Water System

One group of scientists has proposed the creation of an Interstate Water System (IWS) to pump water from east to west, comparing the concept to the Interstate Highway System championed by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. They estimate that the project would require fewer than 10 power plants of 1 gigawatt to provide the energy to move water halfway across the United States, doubling the Colorado River’s flow.

IWS supporters say the pipeline could create “innumerable jobs” in construction through building and maintaining the pipelines and related infrastructure to transport water across state boundaries. At present, water is mainly moved around just within state lines and only over relatively short distances.

The vast resources required to create the pipeline system could be directed locally to the same effect.

Transitioning to Renewables

A separate and potentially easier solution would be to repurpose oil and gas pipeline infrastructure for water, especially as the nation increasingly focuses on renewables and becomes less reliant on fossil fuels. America’s oil and gas infrastructure includes a mind-blowing 2.3 million miles of oil and gas pipelines that run across the country. However, the majority of these begin or end in Texas and Louisiana. It is also doubtful that the oil and gas industry will be willing to make a definitive switch, considering the world has likely not yet even reached peak oil demand.

Finding Water Closer to Home

Opponents consider the idea a literal “pipe dream,” claiming the vast resources required to create the pipeline system could be directed locally to the same—and possibly greater—effect. For example, California’s Carlsbad Desalination Plant provides about 10% of San Diego’s drinking water by removing salt from seawater. Separately, the Cadiz Water Project aims to create a new water supply for up to 400,000 people per year by reducing the amount of groundwater lost to evaporation in the Mojave Desert.

Addressing Water Needs Nationwide

America’s water problem affects a number of states, and it only shows signs of worsening. Yet initiatives that boost water supplies for one community at the expense of another risks raising tensions without addressing the larger problem. Intervention at the federal level in the form of an IWS would require broad bipartisan support in Congress. In lieu of a solution at the national level, efforts such as encouraging desalinization infrastructure, water capture, and other local conservation efforts may ultimately provide the longest-term solutions—and also help to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goal to reach “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

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