When it comes to importing water, nothing seems too extreme

  • Craig Rowe


The West's history of developing water sources, occasionally stained with instances of outright theft, is probably best described as "complicated."

Our decisions on who should get what water -- and how, and from which source they should get it -- usually teetered to the side of whatever person in power had the least tolerance for ethical behavior. We built dams, carved canals, bullied people. Sometimes we lied outright, and no matter how many times a poorly engineered dam flooded out a community or tribe, depriving them of their farmland, we marched ahead with a hostile takeover of Mother Nature's most precious asset.

Today's methods for collecting water and sending it elsewhere aren't much more sophisticated. Improved technology and our arcane water policies simply allow our grand plans to fester a bit longer before they materialize. The most recent case in point: At a July U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference in Las Vegas, the general manager of the powerful Southern Nevada Water Authority, the indefatigable Pat Mulroy, suggested seizing floodplain waters from the Upper Mississippi and its tributaries to alleviate strain on the Colorado River system. The scheme, she said, would also help restore the Ogallala aquifer. The Colorado River's Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, and even parts of Arizona, would see their water shares reduced and potentially eliminated. Growing metropolitan regions farther downriver could then hoard the surplus. This is a grand plan indeed, involving the movement of river water many hundreds of miles.

Barbara Naramore, executive director of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, noted that while she did not hear Mulroy's specific comments, this was not the first time the Mississippi River had been the target of a transfer to another water basin.

"These instances are a good reminder of how very complex these issues are when you start to move water around between basins. A lot of economic development decisions get made ... and then at some point down the line we find ourselves scratching our heads, trying to figure a way out from the corner we just painted ourselves into."

J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, was quick to note that Mulroy's suggestions were taken out of context, even though Mulroy was speaking as part of a Chamber of Commerce's national "Invest in Water" initiative, and the Las Vegas Sun, Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Salt Lake Tribune all seemed to hear and report the same thing.

Asked to put the plan into context, Davis explained that the project "would be a series of exchanges, not necessarily piping water from the upper portion of the Mississippi River complex all the way out to the Great Divide." At this point, he added, "it would be fair to characterize it as a concept."

So where could the "series of exchanges" begin? Every river, stream and babbling brook east of the Rockies eventually finds its way to the Upper Mississippi, including the Musselshell in Montana, a Missouri tributary that recently flooded the town of Roundup, 600 miles north of the Colorado's headwaters. Perhaps Mulroy's pipeline could somehow move floodwater from Pierre, S.D., to Lake Powell, 1,000 miles southwest, where it would benefit the Upper Colorado Basin states.

Historically, a "concept" is typically all we've ever needed to implement absurdly expensive and geographically labyrinthine water-access plans, very much like the one currently close to fruition that will seize water from underneath the Great Basin in rural eastern Nevada and pump it through more than $3 billion worth of pipe straight to the Las Vegas Valley. A significant portion of western Utah will also be impacted by the plan.

Those entertaining the idea of controlling the Upper Mississippi's floodwaters seem to have difficulty associating such a plan with the possibility of failure already established by concepts just as ambitious.  Let's not forget that not long after the Civil War, government officials and profiteers convinced homesteaders of the vast fertility of an arid region that eventually became the Dust Bowl.

It's Mulroy's job to secure and protect her constituents' water supply, and for decades she has gone about her job with gusto. It's up to the rest of us to urge caution and the smart usage of the water we've already got, rather than succumbing to grandiose plans that once again might prove destructive.

Craig Rowe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

melitta smith
melitta smith
Sep 30, 2011 12:10 PM
For those of us interested, could you please advise the names of the plans you refer to? All there alternative plans as well?
Craig Rowe
Craig Rowe Subscriber
Sep 30, 2011 01:22 PM
Hi Melitta, do you mean historical plans implemented? In that case, one need look no further than the LA aquifer, which drained Owens Lake in east-central CA to furnish SoCal and pumps water up and down portions of the southern Sierra Nevada. There has also been talk through the decades of even accessing rivers in the PacNW to supply the southwest. The plan to pump supply from the Great Basin region of east Nevada/western Utah is very close to fruition. The stories and data on that are plenty.

There are water access plans always being bandied about and theorized. Problem with this one is that it's being discussed a little too often.
melitta smith
melitta smith
Sep 30, 2011 02:06 PM
Thanks Craig for the clarification. I lived through the 1993 flood of the Mississippi in St. Charles county (across the Missouri River from St. Louis) that was more than 75% flooded. I had the idea on my own that with all the lack of water in the west and the technology of piping oil the length of Alaska it would be worthwhile to explore the idea of piping flood waters to the west. From your description it seems Ms. Mulroy is talking about flood waters as well. Since that time I have become more informed and know that a plan might start out to move flooding, but would soon turn into theft of the flow of the river necessary for the downriver habitats. As well there would be disruption of currently "natural" habitat where pipes would be installed. I don't want to think about disrupting areas the way Hetch Hetchy was sacrificed but I am at a loss also as to how to continue to supply food and water to our burgeoning population in a sustainable way long term. There are some "out of the box" ideas such as returning the fly-ways and animal migration paths to their former state that entail moving all humans and roads out of those areas. Plans like this seem pretty unbelievable, but moving mountains seemed far fetched a generation ago and now we have mountain top removal. What we do now is preparation for the future and big ideas need to be thought of in those terms. I am not saying I agree with the water piping programs you speak about, but I am saying we need to be planning for the long term, not quick fixes and to me that needs to entail thinking about things that might seem impossible, maybe detrimental to our current way of life, and even risky, but obviously a lot of what we do right now is harming our Earth and all that live there and we need to move beyond this status quo.
Chris  Rowe
Chris Rowe
Oct 03, 2011 01:42 PM
A concept. We need a model, a real good one at that. I find it interesting that you used the word "surplus", were you being sarcastic?
Craig Rowe
Craig Rowe Subscriber
Oct 03, 2011 03:05 PM
No, unfortunately. Relatively speaking, if the upper basin states had their shares reduced, it would create a surplus for southern Nevada and southern CA. Then, of course, years of expensive agreements would have to be hammered out to determine how that "surplus" is used.
David Zetland
David Zetland Subscriber
Oct 04, 2011 02:50 PM
"It's Mulroy's job to secure and protect her constituents' water supply, and for decades she has gone about her job with gusto"

I wish she'd put some gusto into reducing demand (by raising her way too cheap prices)...
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler Subscriber
Oct 05, 2011 12:43 PM
melitta: "I am at a loss also as to how to continue to supply food and water to our burgeoning population in a sustainable way long term." That's because it's not possible. "...maybe detrimental to our current way of life" is an understatement; it cannot continue. There is a large and growing body of work on the limits to growth and the coming transition; maybe you should read up on it. Try http://www.amazon.com/[…]/0865716951
Gudrun  Scott
Gudrun Scott
Oct 05, 2011 01:24 PM
Craig, I was drawn to your article because I live in New York State and our state wants to invite horizontal hydrofracking of shale formations that contain methane gas and to get at the gas, you have to crack rock. 5 million gallons of water are needed to frack one well and that's about a train load of 100 rail road cars full of water. The water is removed from circulation because it is mixed with toxic fracking chemicals and it absorbs radioactive materials and heavy metals from the shale rock . Water usually returns via the clouds eventually it rains but this water cannot evaporate and needs to be injected into deep waste water wells which NY does not have and neither does Pa-- what to do? inject it into the 170 injection wells in Ohio-- that is what is currently going on. It is like wack-a-mole.

This hydrofracking using water is being done in Pennsylavia right now were about 1 to 2 thousand wells are permitted each year.

NY wants to permit 62,000 wells in the next 30 years and they have to be fracked more than once.

Right now communities are selling their water to the neighboring state Pa while this fracking is not yet permitted in NY - waiting for Governor Andrew Cuomo to give the go ahead....

Reading your article-- the future will mean that water is more valuable than gas or oil-- we can use renewables that are clean and we can simply conserve a whole lot more.

Some people think we can just pipe things around and about and ignore nature. We must stand uo for nature and flora and fauna that depend on humans to defend their right to live also and we have to consume a whole lot less----recycle and get serious!!!
Craig Rowe
Craig Rowe Subscriber
Oct 05, 2011 03:11 PM
Thanks for reading Gudrun. You're right, fracking is a serious issue and one with which the West is quite familiar. I would be surprised if NY's collective political voice would allow those permits to pass but you right to be wary, it seems no political party stands for what it appears to on the surface. The value of clean water is hard for most to comprehend and as you mention, our country's growth, very much so out West, was made possible by the extraction of water from its natural sources. Those selling rights in NY could very well regret that in the coming decades.