Infrastructure

Can Diverting the Mississippi River Save the Drought-Stricken West? 5 Better Alternatives

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In case you missed it, the American Southwest has been going through a drought for the past 24 years. Tree ring and geologic data show it is the worst drought in the region for 1200 years! Lake Mead is down to 32% capacity and is projected to drop another 17 feet by the end of the year. It only has about 100 feet to go before Hoover Dam will no longer be able to produce electricity for its 1.3 million customers in three states. And the 20 million+ people who depend on the lake’s water will be increasingly thirsty.

There’s a similar situation upstream at Lake Powell that has become so dire that some are arguing that water should just be released through the dam to fill Lake Mead, as there just isn’t enough water to maintain both reservoirs. An even more radical proposal is to pump water from the Mississippi River to the Colorado River watershed to keep the region hydrated and powered up. This would be an ecological and economic catastrophe. Having researched the issue in government and academic studies, we’ll explain why and suggest some better alternatives to save the drought-stricken West.

Why Does This Matter?

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Problems with agriculture in the Southwest can cause food prices to spike across the country.

The southwestern drought obviously matters if you live in the affected area. But the ripple effect of it can hit your pocketbook no matter where you live. California and other southwestern states provide a significant percentage of the country’s agricultural output and industrial production. If lack of water causes production to dip in those areas, prices can go up everywhere and may even lead to more foreign imports to fill the gap. If enough hardship is created for people who live there, there will be a steady migration out to other states, stressing infrastructure and placing demands on jobs there. So it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure every region of the country has the water it needs.

Climate Issues

Source: tupungato / iStock via Getty Images
The wide bleached strata of stone above the waterline at Lake Mead shows where the old water level was.

The southwest has historically been an arid part of the country. The Sierra Nevada Mountains in California effectively block much of the rainfall from the Pacific, causing dry conditions inland. This has been exacerbated in recent decades by the cascading effects of global warming, which have not only raised average temperatures but have contributed to erratic weather patterns.

Development Strategies

Source: 4kodiak / E+ via Getty Images
Burgeoning populations in dry climates like Phoenix, Arizona, have stressed the limited water resources of the region.

Intensive development in the region has made the problem worse. California is the most populous state in the country, with 39 million people—a little more than the entire population of Canada! Homes, industry, and agriculture have placed tremendous demands on the region’s limited water resources. Overcrowding, high prices, and bureaucracy in California have created a steady migration out to Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. As these areas draw from the same water sources as California, this emigration has not lessened the water crisis in the region.

A Radical Solution

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The Mississippi discharges 4.5 billion gallons of water per second into the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the more radical solutions suggested is to pipe water into the Colorado River watershed from the Mississippi River. This would require a system of pipelines and canals 80-100 feet wide with pumping stations to move billions of gallons of water daily uphill over a thousand miles and over the Continental Divide. And it’s not just an armchair fantasy. The legislature of Arizona petitioned the U.S. Congress to study the idea in 2021 and The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has studied it. With 4.5 billion gallons of water a second flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi has more than enough H2O to fix what ails California and the rest of the Southwest.

What Could Go Wrong?

Flying Asian carp massively jump out of the water
Source: Sergey Yeromenko / Shutterstock.com
Aggressive Asian carp are just one of the invasive species in the Mississippi River that could colonize the Colorado River if water diversion schemes go forward.

The Mississippi water diversion plan has so many downsides that it is not a practical solution to the problem. Here’s why:

  • It costs too much. The cost could be anywhere from $130-500 billion. For comparison, $500 billion is about what all levels of government spend on all infrastructure projects in the United States annually.  
  • It will take too long. It could take 30 years to build, so the water will not be available until the 2050s. What do we do while we wait? And if those temporary measures work for 30 years, why can’t they continue indefinitely?
  • It will be a political nightmare. It will require cooperation across every level of government between jurisdictions of different political persuasions. People will lose property in the construction areas. Politicians will have to endorse spending and sacrifice for a project that will pay off only far in the future, after they’re long out of office.
  • The environmental damage will be serious. The project would very likely introduce invasive species and nitrate fertilizer pollutants from the Mississippi into the Colorado. A reduced water level in the Mississippi could threaten wetlands along its shores and deltas. Lower water flow into the Gulf of Mexico could lower the temperature near the river’s mouth and affect marine species. Depending on where the water is extracted, lower water levels could affect vital commercial navigation downstream. 
  • It could be a security threat. Sabotage, acts of war, or accidents could disrupt the pipeline and disrupt essential water supplies for millions of people.

Alternatives to River Diversion

Climate change and drought land
Source: Piyaset / Shutterstock.com
Can a variety of smaller measures add up to a big solution for the Western water crisis?

So, if diverting the Mississippi isn’t the best solution, what is? The answer is undoubtedly a combination of things rather than one massive geoengineering effort. Some solutions might benefit a single state, while others might help the whole region. So, none of these is a silver bullet, but could they together see the West through this crisis?

1. Reduce Water Usage

Drought tolerant landscaping in Southern California
Source: Simone Hogan / Shutterstock.com
Xeriscaping is a landscaping practice that replaces water-hogging green lawns with sand, stones, and drought-tolerant plants suitable for the local climate and available resources.

If there’s not enough water, you have to find ways to use less. People in the West have been doing this for years: foregoing watering lawns or washing cars, shunning 20,000-gallon swimming pools, and finding ways in industry and farming to do more with less. How can we do more, though?

A Free Market Solution

Interested young woman choosing bottled still water in supermarket, reading label on plastic bottle..
Source: BearFotos / Shutterstock.com
Raising the cost of water is an immensely unpopular solution to shortages, but perhaps the strongest possible way to incentivize conservation.

In a free market, one of the surest ways to get people to stop wasting a commodity is to make them pay for it. Water bills in California are already the highest in the nation. We can easily argue that a basic level of water should be free of charge to every human being. Above this level, though, suppliers could increase prices or even allow the price of water to fluctuate on the free market like petroleum products do. This would create the strongest possible incentives for water conservation or for people and industries to relocate if they cannot afford to live in a place where H2O is scarce and expensive. 

2. Eradicate Tamarisk

Blooming Tamarix bush on coast
Source: Yakov Oskanov / Shutterstock.com
Tamarisk has beautiful pink blooms and can grow as a low shrub or into a tree up to 59 feet (18 m) tall.

Tamarisk, or salt cedar, is an invasive shrub or tree that was introduced to the American Southwest in the 1800s. It grows well in barren areas, spreads quickly, and helps stabilize soil along rivers to prevent erosion. Unfortunately, it also grows in dense thickets that kill out native plant species, guzzles unthinkable amounts of water, and creates large salt deposits in the soil. It’s now rife across the Southwestern states that are suffering most from drought.

A Practical, Natural Solution

Flowers Grebenshik or Tamarix Gallica or French Tamarisk bush with small flowers blooming in spring
Source: Blik Sergey / Shutterstock.com
Tamarisk beetles consume only the invasive tamarisk plant and will die after it has been eradicated.

Removing this invasive species, especially along riverbanks, would significantly reduce demands on river water. The USDA Agricultural Research Service found that tamarisk beetles eat only the tamarisk plant and die when no more is available, not eating any indigenous North American flora. Releasing this beetle on a wide scale in the Southwest could help eradicate this water-wasting invasive plant.

3. Stop Diverting the Colorado

Source: Jacob Boomsma / iStock via Getty Images
Upstream from the dry Southwest, cities like Colorado Springs to the east of the Continental Divide are diverting large quantities of water from its natural watershed to the west of the mountains.

As much as 40% of the water in the headwaters of the Colorado River is being diverted through pipelines to the eastern side of the Continental Divide to serve the needs of Front Range cities like Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs. Around 5 million people live in this rapidly growing part of Colorado. If more or all of the Colorado River’s water were allowed remain in its natural watershed, the drought would extend to central Colorado, but so would the incentive to conserve this precious resource.

A Regional Success Story

sunset over Rocky Mountains and foothills with an irrigation ditch - aerial view, northern Colorado near Loveland
Source: marekuliasz / Shutterstock.com
This lush rural landscape near Loveland, Colorado is the result of water diverted through irrigation ditches like the one to the left.

In addition to residential and commercial consumption, Colorado uses an enormous amount of water for agriculture. Farming in Colorado uses more water than some other states in the region. By comparison, Arizona is a leader in water conservation—despite population growth of 700%, Arizonans were using less water in 2017 than in the 1950s! With less water available in east-central Colorado, some farmland might be more suitable for ranching or other uses that do not require intensive irrigation.

4. Desalinate Ocean Water

Top view The largest water desalination facility in the world, Hadera Israel
Source: Luciano Santandreu / Shutterstock.com
Arid Middle Eastern countries have great experience in ocean water desalinization. This plant, one of the largest in the world, is in Hadera, Israel.

Desalinating ocean water is more expensive and energy-intensive than using fresh water, but it becomes more realistic as water becomes a scarcer commodity. Depending on the energy source used, desalinization can have a large carbon footprint. Intake pipes can suck in marine life and impact local biodiversity. The salty brine salt left over from the process must be disposed of by diluting it in other water sources and dumping it in the ocean, injecting it deep underground, or evaporating it in surface ponds. Despite these problems, if this whole complex process could be completed affordably with clean energy sources, desalinization could literally make oceans of water available. 

5. Import Water

Navigating among gigantic icebergs along the Western coast of Greenland during the midnight sun
Source: LouieLea / Shutterstock.com
Arctic icebergs could be towed to California for its water needs, but the process of doing so would be hazardous.

Water might be transported to California from places where it is more plentiful in the West, like Washington or Alaska. This could happen by using tanker ships or giant water bladders towed across the ocean. There have also been proposals to tow icebergs to California from the Arctic. Saudi Arabia has tried similar experiments with Antarctic icebergs. To prevent excessive melting the berg has to be wrapped in insulation, and the whole process can be hazardous because icebergs flip over as they melt. While not easy, these are technically feasible solutions. The cost has to be weighed against the alternatives.

Working With Nature, Not Against It

AERIAL. Circular green irrigation patches for agriculture in the desert. Dubai, UAE.
Source: SkyMediaPro / Shutterstock.com
Adapt to our environment or adapt our environment to ourselves? The answer is crucial to long-term human survival on the planet.

We have vastly more scientific data to understand our environment and the impact of human alterations to it than the early pioneers did. Decisions about where we will live, what plants we introduce, what kind of lifestyle we will have, and what industries we locate there can create an unsustainable existence. This is worth keeping in mind when we consider long-term solutions.

If history is any indication, massive new engineering schemes, such as diverting the Mississippi, are likely to have unintended consequences that future generations will have to clean up. Perhaps we would do well, instead, to find ways for human beings to adjust to the realities of their environment as it is and scale their activities to the existing resources.

 

 

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