Saturday, March 20, 2010

Solution to Water in the West

It is becoming more and more apparent that the U.S. must transfer some of the excess water that floods the Mid-Western states to the dry Western states. My colleagues and I have been researching this for several years, and have some ideas. We conclude that it is in the national interest to do, and should be a no-brainer. The figure below shows the status of river flooding in the U.S. as of March 20, 2010.

Ancient civilizations realized the critical need for water, and did what it took to move the water to where it was needed. The Romans of course built their famous aqueducts, and the ancient Chinese routed water also. Many others did, too.

While the current Presidential administration is passing out money as if it grew on Sequoia trees, this is a project that should be on the list.

California has an extensive history with water projects, with routing water from the Sacramento River south to Los Angeles, from the Owens Lake area to Los Angeles, and more recently the Colorado River to Los Angeles and San Diego. However, none of these is adequate given the growing California population, droughts, and decreased snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

An amazing fact is that water pumps consume approximately 10 percent of all the power sold in California. Some of that is recovered as hydroelectric power. The recovery of power from water factors in this.

One possibility on the national level is a water transfer system from the Missouri River at Kansas City, that runs approximately 800 miles southwest to the continental divide in New Mexico, just south of Interstate 40. From there the water would flow into tributaries of the Colorado River. The hydroelectric plants are already in place on Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam. Therefore, some of the power expended to pump the water uphill and 800 miles would be recovered. The elevation change is on the order of 6,000 feet.

The water route will be through the U.S.' great wind corridor, so it is conceivable to use windmills to provide energy to the pumps. How the water is transferred is of course an engineering problem, one solution is to use a buried pipeline, or build a series of open canals with a slight downward slope to the southwest, and install water lift (pumping) stations at regular intervals. Something of the same magnitude was done by the construction of the Erie Canal in New York, which runs approximately 365 miles, and 600 feet uphill. It took 8 years to build and was finished in 1825.

This is the type of project that has enormous benefits for almost all Americans, and would certainly be less expensive than building and operating desalination plants using reverse osmosis. The existing lakes Mead and Powell could store the water as necessary. One benefit is an assured supply of agricultural products from the fertile but arid California farmlands and dairies. California supplies a large part of the nation's foods, when there is adequate water.

An advantage of the buried pipeline alternative is no water loss due to evaporation, but a disadvantage is higher initial cost, and higher pumping costs due to friction as the water flows through the pipe.

An advantage of the open canal design is lower pumping cost, but a disadvantage is slight water losses due to evaporation.

The amount of power required to pump the water is tremendous, at roughly 800,000 HP for a flow of 1,000 cubic feet per second.

Given a simple design of 800 miles broken up into 10 mile sections of canal, with a pump at each section, would require 80 pumping stations at 10,000 HP each. The 10,000 HP is roughly 7.5 MW of energy. Of course, an actual design would follow the contour of the land and have pumps sized appropriately for each section. Even if all 80 pumping stations are built, the amount of power required is approximately 600 MW.

The Missouri River flow varies of course, but is somewhat regulated by a series of flood-control dams upstream. The USGS shows the typical flow is about 4,000 to 5,000 cubic feet per second. Therefore, diverting 1,000 cubic feet per second would not likely be a problem. Diverting twice that amount, or three times that amount, could conceivably cause problems.

This would be a job for the Army Corps of Engineers, and is a worthy challenge to their expertise.

My proposed National Excess Water Transport Aqueduct Project (NEWTAP) as described above will go a long way to solving a couple of problems. First, and obviously, is the chronic water shortage in California and other western states, and flooding along the Missouri. Second, what to do with wind power in the Plains when the power demand is in the big cities (the lack of transmission lines problem).

A further improvement on this plan is to also divert a portion of the upper Mississippi River west and into the National Excess Water Transport Aqueduct Project. One possibility is a 150-mile canal due west along US route 36 from Hannibal to St. Joseph. This would allow a water flow of approximately 2,000 cubic feet per second, or more.

The water transfer to the Colorado River would eliminate the need for power transmission lines, because power would be generated at Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam, then sent to Southern California or elsewhere through existing transmission lines. Thus, there would be some savings by not having to build power transmission lines to connect the wind-generators to cities.

A useful means of storing excess wind-generated power is to pump water uphill for later use in hydroelectric plants when the power is needed. This trans-continental, uphill waterway would do exactly that, storing the water in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

I see no technical reasons why this would not work. Crossing existing creeks, rivers, highways, railroads, and hills, can all be done. However, on the legal and environmental side, there are more difficulties. There is a water-rights legal issue of transferring water from one water basin into another. This plan would transfer water from the Missouri water basin across a couple of other basins and into the Colorado water basin. Then there are the eminent domain issues to acquire the right-of-way. This is not a problem, if the governments decree the project is in the public interest. In practice, though, such decrees at times generate public hostility. Finally, the environmental issues are rather large. One can envision the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) for an 800-mile canal crossing several states!

Still, such a project would be of ultimate good. The money spent would provide employment for thousands, and for many years. The energy generated by the windmills would be recovered (at least in part), which is in line with the “Generate Green” movement. That is far better than building a few nuclear power plants. And the water would go to good use, irrigating farms to feed the U.S. and the world.

Note: this is a copy of two articles I wrote in February 2009, when the Spring flooding began (as usual) on the upper sections of the Mississippi, Missouri, and the Red River in the Dakotas. The flooding has started again this year, and practical solutions such as the ones suggested here should be put in place.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.


John Orr said...

Mr. Sowell,

Nice idea but impractical in part of the design. You'll have to run your pipeline all the way to the big Reservoirs as you'll never get environmental clearance to dump water polluted with farm runoff, urban runoff, natural salinity, etc., into the headwaters in New Mexico. No chance, nada.

You may not get permission to divert that water into the big reservoirs either.

John Orr

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Orr, you may be correct, however, there is ample precedent for transferring river water to a distant city. We have done the same for decades by transferring Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Lake Mathews in California, and from there to various cities. The Colorado River contains all the constituents you mention, farm runoff, urban runoff, natural salinity, etc. Government regulation will be required to accomplish this, but it can be done. All that is required is the resolve to do so.

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John David Galt said...

The US water network today is like the pre-Civil-War South's railroad network -- not a network at all, but a lot of separate, tiny systems. So I'd like to hear a lot more specifics about where you'd build your "Erie Canal" -- because I think we'd really need a "national water grid" the size of the electrical grid.

With that change, it's a wonderful idea, but almost certainly politically impossible. Every local area feels its water supply is too small and will fight tooth and nail to prevent any diversion. For instance, Los Angeles is constantly fighting to take more water out of rivers in northern and central California, even as they wrestle with Las Vegas and Phoenix over Hoover Dam water (which is the only supply to those two cities). And of course the feds themselves, including the Army Corps of Engineers, write into every dam contract the condition that that state will never allow a free market in water (because it would expose the huge subsidy that farmers now receive from residential water users).

The problem gets even bigger if you try to expand your "water globalization" to other countries. Texas and Mexico still bicker about Rio Grande water, while major rivers where there is no comparable treaty (such as the Colorado and the Missouri) are routinely emptied before they cross national borders. That will take centuries to change, if it ever does.