It’s Time for “Big Water”

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The day will come when water will be more precious than oil.

That day has already come in some places and cases, but as a society we in the US haven’t begun thinking of it in that way.

The “Great Hydro-Paradox”

Picture the “Great Hydro-Paradox”: on one hand we have severe water shortages in places like California and various other agricultural regions; parched land; crops failing; animals dying; farmers and small business operators in financial crisis; the national food supply becoming precarious. Equally important, wildfire risk rises to dangerous levels in drought-ridden areas. (Typically, 11 US states experience episodic or chronic drought: Arizona; California; Colorado; Montana; Nevada; New Mexico; North Dakota; Oregon; Utah; Washington; and Wyoming.)

At the very same time, people in vulnerable coastal areas like Florida and Louisiana are swamped by torrential rains; wading hip-deep in churning water; their flooded houses damaged beyond repair; automobiles swept away to destruction; drownings and other consequential loss of life; public services knocked out; and many businesses utterly destroyed. 

All in the same country on the same day.

Is There Any Hope?

As frightening and disconcerting as the news images are, we seem mostly immobilized; paralyzed; overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the destruction. As a society, we seem to have adopted a fatalistic sort of acceptance. We can tinker around the margins, perhaps, with irrigation and water rationing on one end and flood-damage mitigation measures on the other, but overall, “it is what it is.”

But what if we changed our thinking in a radical way? Suppose we decided to attack the hydro-paradox—simultaneous drought and flooding—by engineering a truly national water management system, on a grand scale?

The day may come when we price water as dearly as we price oil, but why wait until then? Suppose we decided to give water the same commercial, technological, and logistical priority that we’ve always given to oil? What’s to stop us from moving water around on the same scale as we move oil?

Can we think on a truly grand scale, technologically, logistically, and commercially? Could this venture become the “Apollo Mission” of the infrastructure; our apology to Mother Nature for the excesses of the  built environment? Think: the Great  Pyramids’ scale; the Erie Canal; the Panama Canal; the Hoover Dam (times ten); the Moon Landing? Could we construct a system that relieves the suffering and the costs of drought in the West, while limiting the water destruction caused by mega-storms and hurricanes elsewhere?

Multiple Solutions

Before we examine the mega-engineering possibilities for “big water,” let’s acknowledge several other important avenues, including 1) conservation and consumer discipline; 2) infrastructure repairs to limit the huge water losses in the distribution systems; and 3) techno-options like desalination.

Of the three options, the first two are the most cost-effective, but require a degree of political will and citizen compliance that we currently don’t have. “Desal” is a proven technology, skillfully employed by countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, but it’s intrinsically expensive due to its high energy cost and its side-effects or byproducts—typically CO2 in the case of thermal distillation, and the highly concentrated “brine” that accumulates and must be disposed of. 

A truly national solution, viable for the long term, will have to include multiple components—those just described, and others, possibly yet undiscovered. For the sake of this discussion, however, let’s focus on one key element of a grand solution: moving mass quantities of water all over the continent.

Let’s Do the Numbers

A simple-minded view of the problem says that we have too much water in some places and not enough of it in other  places. What would a national water management system look like?

Using oil transport as a model, or analogy, we might get an idea of the amount of water we’d have to move, constantly, “24/7.”

We could use either or both of two methods to transport the water over super-long distances: 1) continuous pipelines, with booster pumps along the way; and 2) large tanker ships to transfer it from port to port. That’s the way the oil operators usually do it: pipes and ships.

The Alaska Pipeline, a 4-foot diameter tube that runs some 800 miles from the frozen Prudhoe Bay oilfields to the southern port of Valdez, moves about 72 million gallons of crude oil per day. (At a speed of about 4 miles per hour, the trip takes about 9 days.) Considering that piping water requires less energy than piping oil (and less of almost everything else, including environmental risk), a similar pipeline could probably move about 100 million gallons of water per day on a continuous basis. A network of such pipelines could redistribute massive amounts of water to the areas in need.

Oil tankers range in size from small to mega-large. The largest ones can carry 2 million barrels or more. At 42 gallons of oil per barrel, that comes out to about 80 million gallons or so, or something less than a day’s throughput for one pipeline.

But, where do we get the water? Presuming we can move it hundreds or thousands of miles by pipe and ship, where do we start?

Let’s start at the cheapest spots, where Mother Nature offers it for free. One good choice is the mouth of the Mississippi River. The “Father of Waters” discharges about 3.5 million gallons of fresh water every second into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans.

Pipelines from there to California, for example, would have to span about 1800 miles, more than twice the length of the Alaska Pipeline, but not overly long by current standards. That’s also the approximate distance from Lake Superior to the west coast, which might be a second possibility. Pipelines running from Lake Superior could supply the northwestern drought areas as well. Civil engineers could figure out how to minimize energy and construction costs by plotting routes that avoid high elevations such as the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

Ships transporting water to the west coast would have to go through the Panama Canal to get there, incurring costs for transit fees. Alternatively, they could sail up the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers to distribution points. Not cheap and maybe not easy, but feasible? Probably.

A somewhat more expensive option might involve collecting water from the mouth of the Amazon river (which has an outflow of 60 million gallons per second—one-fifth of the world’s total river flow) and shipping it through the Panama Canal to the west coast.

Some engineering experts have advanced the idea of transporting water and other materials with giant dirigibles, a low energy-cost option if you don’t mind the long transit times. Interestingly, dirigibles might also have a place in fire-fighting, where they could drop massive amounts of water or fire retardant from various altitudes.

Disclaimer and acknowledgement: the options presented above are the result of brief, hypothetical, “back-of-the-envelope” estimates, and not from any rigorous engineering analysis. Although they seem feasible from the long-distance perspective, they can’t be considered viable solutions without careful study.

Now, For the Tricky Bit

Assuming for a moment that the water management scheme just outlined could work, or could be evolved and refined, we still face a very difficult challenge on the other end of the Hydro-Paradox: how to reduce the appalling water damage caused by tropical storms and hurricanes.

Again, we’ll have to put on our thinking caps and think big—really big.

The first objective of a flood-protection system would be to minimize the water rise in an urban area so that houses and other buildings are not flooded and streets are not dangerous for people and their cars. Even a partial solution might radically reduce the costs in lives and property caused by heavy storms. We can’t do much about hurricane damage so far, but the colossal costs of water damage might be assailable to some significant degree.

Let’s bear in mind that tropical storms, flash floods, and hurricanes dump colossal volumes of water on the terrain they pass over. We’re talking billions of gallons of water, delivered in just a few days. Sand bags and bucket brigades won’t do it. We’d need a colossal water-transfer capacity to match the colossal volumes of rainfall. Can it be done? Best guess is: probably; however, it would need a careful engineering analysis which is beyond the scope of this discourse.

Most flood-vulnerable cities already have various drainage channels for running off excess water. The problem is that there’s so much water that there’s nowhere for it to go. The run-off systems just back up and the waters rise to catastrophic levels. The first engineering approach to be considered would probably use pumps: big pumps; monster pumps; and lots of them. 

A first thought would be to enlarge and extend the run-off channels—a large and ambitious undertaking, to be sure—and feed them into a series of pumping stations. These pumps would need independent  power supplies (typically powered by gasoline or natural gas), so that a knock-out blow to the public power grid wouldn’t affect them.

At the first raindrop, these monster pumps would start up, and would begin sucking millions of gallons of surface water out of the populated areas and discharging it out through pipelines, probably designed like the ones discussed above.

Costs and Benefits

On first reaction, one might ask, “Wouldn’t such a scheme be extraordinarily expensive?” Surely, the capital investment and the ongoing costs of operation and maintenance would be high. But let’s consider the avoided costs: the lives saved; the property destruction avoided; the damage to the economy and to many, many businesses that wouldn’t happen. Wildfires, we know, become much more likely—and destructive—under extreme drought conditions.

With a massive national investment, we would also be giving birth to a viable commercial-industrial sector, with profit opportunities for businesses and thousands of jobs for technical specialists and construction workers.

Our real choice, it seems, lies between acceptance of a gradual decline in the quality of life for virtually all citizens, or a grand technological adventure of unprecedented scale. Let’s begin the conversation.


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