Washington As the soggy East tries to dry out from flooding and Texas prays for rain that doesn’t come, you might ask: Isn’t there some way to ship all that water from here to there?
It’s an idea that has tempted some, but reality gets in the way.
A Texas oilman once envisioned long pipelines carrying water to drought-stricken Texas cities, just one of several untested fantasies of moving water vast distances. Parched Las Vegas still wants to indirectly siphon off excess water from the overflowing Mississippi River. French engineers have simulated hauling an iceberg to barren Africa. There are even mega-trash bags to move heavy loads of water.
There’s certainly plenty of rainwater available. Tropical Storm Lee dumped enough on the already saturated Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Gulf Coast to bring 9.6 inches of rain across the entire state of Texas, according to calculations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Associated Press.
“One man’s flood control is another man’s water supply,” said Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Doesn’t it make you want to think about a larger distribution that helps both? That’s the crazy part of this. It’s a win-win. There’s no loser.”
But moving vast quantities of water is not simple or cheap, and thus not realistic, experts say. Mostly, it’s too costly and political.
However, these dreamed-up concepts show that a quiet water crisis is getting more desperate.
“We will go to any lengths to avoid confronting the reality of water shortages,” said University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon, author of the book “Unquenchable.”
“What all those zany ideas suggest are the traditional beliefs that we can control nature and there must be some oasis out there where we can go to, to import water.”
But those are mirages, he said — tempting, but not realistic.
Mike Halpert, deputy director of the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, knows the temptation. He’s about to fly from Washington, which has had 7 inches since Monday, to Houston, which got about that amount of rain for the entire spring and summer. All that D.C. rain would be enough water for every person in Houston for 10 days.
He jested that he would love to carry water in his suitcases. He said colleagues have been “joking that we’ll send Texas our water. Will they send us their oil? But I don’t think that’s going to fly.”
The trouble with water is “there’s enough quantity but it is not always in the right places,” said G. Tracy Mehan, who was chief water regulator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration during the George W. Bush Administration.
So how about moving it?
“The short answer ... is that it costs too much. It’s not a technical problem,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Studies Institute and a MacArthur genius grant recipient for his work on water.
Las Vegas’ grand proposal is to take water from the mighty Mississippi in a series of smaller pipeline-like exchanges among states just west of the Mississippi to refill the overused Colorado River. There are no official cost estimates, but it likely would be in the hundreds of billions dollars. Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens abandoned his plans for a massive water pipeline stretching across Texas to just moving water around the Texas Panhandle.
Water weighs a lot — about 8.3 pounds per gallon — so moving massive amounts, often up mountains, costs a lot, Glennon said. Gleick notes that conservation and efficiency are cheaper.
Building a pipeline to pump water from flooded areas is foolish because each year it is somewhere different that gets drenched, so you can’t build something permanent based on a couple of years’ unusual rainy weather, NOAA’s Halpert said.