bad timing for grand ideas

I’ll take a brief respite from my recent oil pipeline kick (more to come later this week) to compare two different news stories: one is the continuing saga of water management struggles in the Missouri-Mississippi River basins, and the other is the attempt to track down new water management strategies for the water-poor, population heavy Front Range region of Colorado.

Over in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins, stakeholders continue to fret about the balance of water flowing through their reaches.  Farmers in North Dakota worry about sufficient irrigation water in the future, as the Army Corps of Engineers considers depleting the 12 years of supply stored in the Upper Missouri’s reservoirs.  (Note to Hetch Hetchy restoration advocates: that’s a lot of supply to be stored.  Engineers must think that excess storage is a hedge against uncertain future conditions, huh…).  Barges in the Mississippi are cutting down their loads, so they can ride higher in the river, and dredging activities to remove natural limestone features along the Illinois-Missouri border have been accelerated.  Don’t let the title of that article fool you — the only water wars in progress are figurative, not literal.

Things could escalate — though almost certainly not to actual violence — if a proposed plan to build a pipeline from the Missouri River watershed to Colorado’s Front Range goes through.  The US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) is entertaining far-fetched ideas to address Colorado’s limited water supply, including towing an iceberg to California, shipping giant bags of water from Alaska, and yes, building a giant pipeline across Kansas to Denver.  In order to consider these odd ideas seriously, the USBR has started the planning and alternative evaluation process.  I outlined how this generally works in relation to the Hetch Hetchy restoration idea, but suffice it to say, this pipeline is still at the early stages of “tools for decision making” rather than the early stages of design and implementation.

Although this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it first might seem (the pipeline would need to be roughly 600 miles long, only 50% longer than the 419-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct), I really hope it doesn’t make the next cut for analysis.  The goal in the US should not be to emulate California’s extensive aqueduct network, but rather to implement large-scale water recycling to cut down on net consumption of water by various municipalities or regions.

The timing of this idea is also about as bad as it gets.  Any sign of the Missouri and Mississippi stakeholders getting wind of this idea, and an all-out media war of words will likely ensue.  That’s a good way to ensure that regardless of the engineering feasibility study outcome, the public relations battle will already be far lost.  And who knows, maybe that’s what USBR really wants, too.

Mississippi river blues

I’ve mentioned that water levels in the Great Lakes have declined recently, and that this is probably related to climatic factors like recent droughts.  Low flows on the Mississippi River suggest that droughts are, indeed, a big factor in the upper Midwest right now.  In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to manage the reservoirs on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to balance conservation and water flow.  Their latest decision to keep more water stored in an upper Missouri reservoir may mean that barge traffic on the Mississippi near St. Louis and Illinois may shut down early next year, absent heavy rain/snow.  The Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis, and in a normal year, up to 60% of the combined flow comes from the upper Missouri watershed.  This year, however, approximately 78% of the combined flow has come from the upper Missouri — which means that the flow from the upper Mississippi (Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and even Lake Michigan) is a mere 22% of the flow.  In other words, the upper Mississippi makes up a smaller piece of the pie than in a normal year, plus the whole pie is smaller than a normal year.  Rough times.

There’s not much to be done in the midst of a drought except draw down our reservoirs (this is why we save up our water every wet year) and increase dredging to deepen existing shipping channels.  But I can say that this saga tells us that the problems of the Great Lakes are not due to a couple of extra diversions here and there — the middle of the country is in a tough drought, and there’s less water to go around.  Another year like this, and we’ll be praying for rain.