With water shortages a constant, Westerners are looking at wacky (and not so wacky) ways to squeeze more water out of the sky and land.
- Tamarisk removal
Tamarisk -- which infests some 1 million acres in the West -- chokes out willows and cottonwoods, and ruins beaches. It also slurps up lots of water -- some say a single tamarisk drinks 200 gallons per day. Estimated cost to remove it? $3,000 per acre, though newer methods, such as tamarisk-eating beetles, are cheaper.
- Logging for water
In 2002, as Colorado was racked by drought, the state proposed something drastic: Clear-cutting its forests to increase runoff. Fewer trees, the theory goes, would result in more snow on the ground -- it was proven on a small scale in Wyoming. Most people just laughed at the idea because of the high cost and environmental impacts.
- The Big Straw
Hear that sucking sound? This scheme would have had a 200-mile pipeline carrying Colorado River water from the Utah border back, uphill, to the Front Range of Colorado. The idea was born in the 1980s, discarded, then reborn during the 2002 drought. It's dead again, at least until the next devastating dry spell.
- "Oregon's Oil"
The Colorado River provides water to about three times the population of Oregon and Washington combined, but it has less than one-tenth the water of the Northwest's Columbia River. So why not pipe water from the Columbia down to the Southwest? It's been considered since the 1960s, and just last year, Oregon State Sen. David Nelson began pushing the idea in earnest again to generate revenue for his state. He figures sending some 1 million acre-feet of water southward would net his state about $3 billion per year. The salmon may not like the idea, but if it's not done, says Nelson, "Oregon will become the Appalachia of the West."
- Pipe dreams
The idea of funneling water from one river basin to another is pretty old hat. But these days, thirsty Western communities are getting more ambitious. Utah's proposed Lake Powell Pipeline would move 100,000 acre-feet of water across 177 miles to three booming counties in southwestern Utah at a cost of at least $1 billion. There's also the Southern Nevada Water Authority's $2 billion-$3.5 billion proposal to pump up to 167,000 acre-feet of groundwater from the state's basin and range country through 327 miles of pipeline to Las Vegas. In Colorado, businessman Aaron Million has proposed a privately financed $2 billion-$4 billion, 400-mile-long pipeline that would transport water from Utah's Flaming Gorge Reservoir through Wyoming to Colorado's Front Range cities.
- Bagging it
During dry 2002, Alaska businessman Ric Davidge proposed filling giant poly-fiber bags with 13 million gallons of water each from Northern California's Gualala River, and then towing them with barges and tugs all the way down the coast to San Diego. The Gualala locals weren't so happy, and when the California Coastal Commission voted to oppose the measure, Davidge withdrew the plan.
- Strange brew
Conceived in the 1950s, the North American Water and Power Alliance would have moved water from Canada to the Southwest and Great Plains via an ambitious network of pipes and canals, including a giant pump in Montana to clear the Rockies. It actually gained favor on a federal level in the 1960s, but faded into wacky water obscurity by the 1970s. In recent years, the idea has surfaced again.
While studying the source of a couple of wells, Sandoval County, N.M., officials recently discovered an aquifer near the rapidly growing city of Rio Rancho that contains some 4 million acre-feet of water, or enough for a city of 300,000 people for 100 years (75,000 people now live in the city). Rio Rancho officials now have visions of even more growth. Problem is, the water's brackish, so it must be desalinated. Cost to build the pumping and desalting facility? $47 million.
- Off the roof
In order to harvest rainwater in Colorado, one must navigate onerous state water laws. Not so in one arid Arizona city. In October, Tucson became the first city in the U.S. to require commercial developments to harvest rainwater. Under the law, which takes effect in 2010, developers will have to get half of their landscaping water from the roof.
- Seeding the clouds
Of all the unconventional solutions to drought, "seeding" rain clouds with silver iodide to increase precipitation is the most widely implemented. Ski areas fund cloud-seeding efforts in Colorado, power companies support it in Idaho and Los Angeles County is forking out $800,000 this year to seed clouds over the San Gabriel Mountains. Problem is, it may not work: It's true that introducing particles into moisture-laden clouds can help create raindrops, but there's not enough conclusive evidence to determine if and how much extra precipitation this may create in a specific spot. And if it does work, is it just stealing rain from those downwind? A five-year study in Wyoming, costing more than $8 million, is under way in hopes of answering these questions. Regardless of its actual effectiveness, it's valuable as a sort of meteorological placebo: Ski areas tout cloud-seeding programs in their marketing propaganda, and water managers get to say they're actually doing something about the weather. Meanwhile, conservation-minded folks say that it would make more sense to spend that money on efficiency measures, such as low-flow toilets and showerheads.
Modern-day cloud seeding may have its roots in the mysterious craft of Charles Mallory Hatfield. Back in the early 1900s, Hatfield built a tower in the San Gabriels from which he disseminated his secret concoction of 23 chemicals into the air in order to create rain. After a storm came, local ranchers paid him $1,000 for his "moisture acceleration" talents. Later, the city of San Diego hired him. A few days after he set up his tower, a deluge struck, breaking a dam and wreaking havoc. The city never paid him.
The West in your Inbox