Pumping the Mississippi River West: Solution or Dream?

By Brittney J. Miller, Cedar Rapids Gazette

February 2, 2023 GMT

Cedar Rapids, Iowa (AP) — California has been drenched in torrential rains in the new year. Snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada mountains have swelled to more than 200% of their normal size, and snowfall across the rest of the Colorado River basin is trending above average, too.

While much-needed water has improved conditions in the parched West, experts caution against claiming victory. About 60% of the region is still in some form of drought, a continuation of decades-long water scarcity.

“The drought is so significant that recent rainfall is a bit like finding a $20 bill when you lose your job and get kicked out of your house,” said Rhett Larson, a professor of water law at Arizona State University.

Over the years, a proposed solution has come up again and again: large-scale river diversions, including pumping Mississippi waters into the parched west.

Just this past summer, the idea caused a firestorm of letters to the editor-in-chief of a California newspaper. But the interest runs deeper than that. Most recently, the Arizona legislature passed a measure in 2021 urging Congress to investigate pumping floodwaters from the Mississippi River into the Colorado River to boost its flow.

Recent studies and engineering have proven that such projects are possible but require decades of construction and billions of dollars. Politics is an even bigger obstacle to making multi-state pipelines a reality. However, their persistence in the public sphere illustrates the growing desperation of Western countries to extricate themselves from the drought.

“We can move water, and we’ve proven that we want to do it. I think it would be reckless to consider that not possible,” said Richard Rudd, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan. “But we need to know a lot more about it than we currently do.”

What is the proposal, and who proposes it?

Official proposals for large-scale water imports have existed in the United States since at least the 1960s, when a US company devised the North American Water and Power Alliance to redistribute Alaskan water across the continent using reservoirs and canals. Widespread interest in the plan eventually died down.

Similar project stories often share the same ending, from proposals in Iowa and Minnesota to those between Canada and the United States. However, some small projects have become a reality.

For example, the Kansas Groundwater Management Agency received a permit last year to ship 6,000 gallons of Missouri River water to Kansas and Colorado in hopes of recharging the aquifer. In northwestern Iowa, the river’s water was frequently pumped by a rural water utility that sells at least a quarter of the water out of the state. There are several approved diversion processes that bring water from the Great Lakes.

On the heels of Arizona’s 2021 push to study the pipeline’s feasibility, former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed legislation last July that invested $1.2 billion to fund projects that conserve water and bring more to the state. Among its provisions, the Act granted state water infrastructure funding authority to “investigate the feasibility” of potential water import agreements from out of state.

No in-depth feasibility study has been done specifically about pumping the waters of the Mississippi River to the west to Larson’s knowledge. He said he was open to anyone – but he didn’t think it was necessary.

“I think the feasibility study will probably tell us what we already know, which is that there are much less expensive and less complex options that we can invest in now,” he said, “such as reducing water use.”

Is it financially practical – but politically?

In 2012, the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation completed “the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted within the Colorado River Basin” at the time, which analyzed solutions to water supply issues—including importing water from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Under the analyzed scenario, the water will be channeled to the front Colorado and New Mexico regions to help meet water needs. It will cost at least $1,700 per acre foot of water, potentially produce 600,000 acres of water per year by 2060 and take 30 years to build.

Additional analysis emerged a decade later when Roger Viadero, an ecologist and engineer at Western Illinois University, and graduate students weighed the proposals proposed in last summer’s viral editorials.

In their technical report, which has not been peer-reviewed, they calculated that a pipe to move that measure of water would have to be 88 feet in diameter—about twice the length of the semi-trailer—or 100 feet wide with a channel 61 feet deep.

The experts we spoke with agreed that this astronomical feat would be astronomical. Still, it’s physically possible.

“As an engineer, I can guarantee you that it is possible,” Viadero said. “But there are so many things that could be done but never done.”

Viadero’s team estimated that selling the water needed to fill Lake Powell and Lake Mead in the Colorado River — the nation’s largest reservoirs — would cost more than $134 billion for a penny a gallon. The construction price would add to this exorbitant bill, along with the operating costs of the equipment needed to pump water over the Western Continental Barrier.

Buying land to secure water rights would cost a significant chunk of money, too, leading to an even bigger hurdle for such proposals: legal and political hoops.

Local obstacles include endangered species protection, wetland protection, drinking water supply considerations, and interstate shipping protection. The precedents set by other diversion attempts, such as the one that established the Great Lakes Pact, cast doubt on the political viability of any large-scale attempt to divert the Mississippi River, said Chloe Wardropper, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who researches environmental management.

Transnational pipelines will also affect environmental resources. The lower Mississippi flow means sediment drops into Louisiana, where it is used to restore coastlines. Diverting this water also means spreading problems, such as pollutants, excess nutrients, and invasive species.

Notably, the Mississippi River basin doesn’t always have enough water to spare. Drought conditions plagued the region throughout 2022, for example, raising concerns about river navigation.

“No one wants to leave the western states without water,” said Melissa Scanlan, a professor of freshwater sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “But transferring water from one drought-affected area to another is not a solution.”

permanent idea

The idea of ​​a pipeline running across the continent is not new. But as water scarcity in the West grows more desperate, the obstacles can one day be overcome.

“It could potentially become so dire that there is an amount of money that can overcome all of these obstacles,” Larson said. “It may be in the trillions, but it’s probably out there.”

Meanwhile, the researchers encourage more feasible and sustainable options, including better water conservation, water recycling, and less reliance on agriculture. Other forms of augmentation, such as desalination, are also gaining popularity on the national scene as possible options.

It will undoubtedly require sacrifices, experts said – but not on the scale of building a giant pipeline.

“To talk about pipe dreams, when that wouldn’t have been possible for decades, if it was possible…it’s a disservice,” Scanlan said. “People need to focus on their realistic solutions.”


This story is a product Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water DeskUniversity-based, editorially independent reporting network Missouri School of Journalism In partnership with Report to America and the Environmental Journalists AssociationFunded by the Walton Family Foundation. The Associated Press Climate team contributed photos and page layout.


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. AP is solely responsible for all content. For all AP environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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