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January 29, 2015

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Pipeline from Missouri River among ideas for sating West’s water needs


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

The Colorado River winds its way through Black Canyon south of the Hoover Dam Bypass on Aug. 19, 2010.

The federal government has come up with dozens of ways to enhance the diminishing flow of the Colorado River, which has long struggled to keep seven states, including Nevada, and roughly 25 million people hydrated.

Among the proposals in a report by the Bureau of Reclamation, parts of which leaked out in advance of its expected release this week, are traditional solutions to water shortages, such as decreasing demand through conservation and increasing supply through reuse or desalination projects.

But also in the mix, and expected to remain in the final draft of the report, is a more extreme and contentious approach. It calls for building a pipeline from the Missouri River to Denver, nearly 600 miles to the west. Water would be doled out as needed along the route in Kansas, with the rest ultimately stored in reservoirs in the Denver area.

Experts say the plan is reminiscent of those proposed in the middle of the 20th century, when grand and exorbitant federal water projects were commonplace — and not, with the benefit of hindsight, always advisable.

The fact that the Missouri River pipeline idea made the final draft, water experts say, shows how serious the problem has become for the states of the Colorado River basin.

“I pooh-poohed this kind of stuff back in the 1960s,” said Chuck Howe, a water policy expert and emeritus professor of economics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But it’s no longer totally unrealistic. Currently, one can say, ‘It’s worth a careful look.’”

The pipeline option would provide the Colorado River basin with 600,000 acre-feet of water annually, which could serve roughly 1 million single-family homes. But the loss of so much water from the Missouri and Mississippi River systems, which require flows high enough to sustain large vessel navigation, likely would face strong political opposition.

“If this gets any traction at all, people in the flyover states of the Missouri River basin probably will scream,” said Burke W. Griggs, the counsel for the Kansas Agriculture Department’s division of water resources. But, he added, the proposal “shows you the degree to which water-short entities in the Colorado River basin are willing to go to get water” from elsewhere rather than fight one another over dwindling supplies, as they have, intermittently, for about a century.

The new report addresses the adequacy of water supplies over the next 50 years in the Colorado basin, which includes the central and southern Rocky Mountains, the deserts of the Southwest and Southern California. The study, the officials said, will serve as a road map for future federal action in collaboration with the Colorado River basin states.

The Denver Post described the pipeline option in an article last week.

As far as future water supplies go, the outlook is not good. Most Colorado River water is used for agriculture, but that is beginning to shift as the cities of the Southwest continue to grow.

The effects of climate change could result in less precipitation over the Rockies, further stressing supply.

Existing agreements among the states that depend on the river oblige those in the upper basin (including Wyoming, Colorado and Utah) to provide a specified amount of flow downstream. The fear, Howe said, is that there will not be enough Colorado water for all, and downstream states such as Nevada, Arizona and California will nonetheless call for their usual deliveries from the upstream states, renewing old water wars.

To avert that, new sources of supply or a sharp reduction in demand would be required.

Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, said that during the course of the study, the analysis done on climate change and historical data led the agency “to an acknowledged gap” between future demand and future supply as early as the middle of this century.

That is when they put out a call for broader thinking to solve the water problem.

“When we did have that wake-up call, we threw open the doors and said, ‘Bring it on,’” she said. “Nothing is too silly.”

Jason Bane of Western Resource Advocates, a conservation organization based in Boulder, Colo., described the Missouri pipeline option as “fundamentally 20th-century water-policy thinking that doesn’t work in the 21st century.” He added, “We clearly need to conserve and be more efficient with the water we have.”

It is unclear how much such a project would cost, though estimates run into the billions of dollars. That does not include the cost of the new electric power that would be needed (along with the construction of new generating capacity) to pump the water uphill from Leavenworth, Kan., to the front range reservoirs serving Denver, about a mile above sea level, according to Sharlene Leurig, an expert on water-project financing at Ceres, a nonprofit group based in Boston that works with investors to promote sustainability.

If the Denver area had this new source of water to draw on, it could reduce the supplies that come from the Colorado River basin on the other side of the Continental Divide.

But Griggs and some federal officials said that the approval of such a huge water project remained highly unlikely.

Leurig noted that local taxpayers and utility customers would shoulder most of the expense of such a venture through their tax and water bills, which would make conservation a more palatable alternative.

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  1. As a longtime advocate of diverting what would be excessive flood waters of the Midwest to serve the West, this is a positive step forward. Years of conversing with water experts tells me that moving this water along a path of Highway 40 east to west is far better, and would directly serve states that experience seasonal drought demands (as Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona) en route.

    A project as this would put Americans to work, increase demand for American made/manufactured durable goods as construction equipment, pipe and fittings, safety equipment, specialized training, and other ancilliary services. This would be a real "shot in the arm" for many unemployed Americans.

    Also what needs to be stipulated, is requiring recipient states and their communities strict SUSTAINABLE growth initiated by local Planning Commissions. Our society needs to exercise restraint in how it expands into UNdeveloped areas, and should build only by recycling previously used parcels, installing conservation and energy smart devices that enhances sustainable living for occupants.

    Projects as these improve the lives of millions, and have a positive economic effect. The converse would be communities growing stagnant and having people leave, take flight, due to lack of water. No community, no business, can grow and prosper when water is absent.

    Blessings and Peace,

  2. Doesn't the LV SUN have an updated photo of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge. I could have sworn the bridge was completed, opened and being used these days. The photo displayed looks to be that bridge in partial construction.

  3. Living upstream from the Grand Coulee Dam as I do and being the beneficiary of inexpensive public power, irrigation and public infrastructure I am not adverse to big public projects. With that caveat I have to ask who pays and how will we pay. When I lived in Las Vegas I was fortunate to live on an ancient [by LV standards] property with its own well, so I had big, thirsty tree and a nice shaded lawn. Folks who had to pay for water were screaming bloody murder at the proposed cost of a much shorter pipeline. I can't imagine that folks from Denver and the Front range would treat this any differently. With growing populations maybe it's time for some severe planning. zoning and building codes.

  4. <<As a longtime advocate of diverting what would be excessive flood waters of the Midwest to serve the West, this is a positive step forward>>

    What "excessive flood waters"? In case you didn't read about it, between the mild winter, ie no snow, and waterless summer, ie no rain, the area is still in a drought mode. There was barely enough water to keep the farmers' fields viable this past year. It's important to keep those fields watered, you know - so you can have food on your table.

    Excellent point and far more doable.

    Another excellent point. The underground water level in the Midwest near the Mississippi is down to almost nothing. As much as I hate to say it and will curse every day it happens, we need snow this winter, lots of it, to help replenish the water levels.

  5. I don't see this as a very viable option any time soon. I drive across the Missouri River every day and the river is as low as I have ever seen it. Barge traffic near the Omaha, NE area is completely shutdown likely until spring and that is only if the mountains get a big snow fall and fills up the reservoirs up north. I think pumping water from the ocean and desalinization would be a better option (I hear the oceans are rising at an alarming rate

  6. For years now the Mississippi River has been experiencing history-setting low levels, making it difficult for barges loaded with consumer products and commodities to navigate its distance. Now, there is consideration to build a pipeline to siphon off some of those waters westward so we can keep farms in California, fountains at the Bellagio, the lake at "Lake Las Vegas", and swimming pools in our neighborhoods operating? Am I the only one thinking of the insanity? Why is it that desalination works in Saudi Arabia but not in California?

  7. @Ibfromlv

    Saudi Arabia has unlimited oil dollars to finance desalination plants. It is extremely energy intensive and thus expensive in general. Can you imagine the cost using "green energy" sources and unions labor? We may as well start trying to mine ice from asteroids.