Water For a Dry Southwest

For generations the Colorado River has supplied water to homes, farms, and industry in Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. Now a 14-year drought, climate change, a growing population, and overuse are drying up the Colorado. The water levels in Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the Glen Canyon dam on the upper Colorado, and Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover dam on the lower Colorado, have dropped to all time lows.

In California, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was 10% of normal in the winter of 2013-14. Water deliveries to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, where 65% of the nation’s fruits and nuts are grown, were drastically reduced. Ground water supplies are also declining due to over-pumping. Water shortages are threatening to curtail the region’s $44 billion annual agricultural production.  

Water use restrictions have been imposed throughout the region, but even the strictest rationing can’t make up for the enormous loss of basic water supply. A number of ideas have been proposed for supplying additional water to the parched Southwest. Some appear less practical than others, but all are receiving new consideration.

Alaska to California Pipeline. In the 1990s, the then-governor of Alaska proposed construction of a 2,000 mile (3,218km) undersea pipeline from river sources in southern Alaska to the Shasta reservoir in Northern California. The congressional Office of Technical Assessment estimated the cost of construction at $150 billion in 1990 dollars. Most experts consider the plan unfeasible due to cost and engineering challenges.

Missouri River Pipeline. A proposal to run a 600 mile (965km) pipeline from the Missouri River to Denver has been considered by Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at the time of the proposal opposed the idea due to high construction cost, to keeping water levels on the Missouri and Mississippi high enough for navigation, and because of political opposition from environmental groups.

Converted Oil Tankers. Single-hulled oil tankers were mothballed when new laws mandated double-hulled vessels for transporting oil in 1993. A proposal to sanitize the tanks on the single-hulled tankers and use them for transporting water from Alaska to California has been floated, so to speak. The expense of bringing the ships out of mothballs, sandblasting the tanks; and fuel, crew, and maintenance costs would make it impractical to deliver fresh water by this method at an affordable price, according to those who have studied the idea.

Giant waterbags. A California company is building flexible fabric barges designed to carry more than a million US gallons of fresh water. Since fresh water is lighter than salt water, these huge waterbags will float when full, and a train of 4 or 5 of them can be towed by a vessel the size of a tug. They are built to withstand almost any weather. A train of such bags can deliver 4 to 5 million gallons of water at a cost lower than water delivered by pipeline or aqueduct, according to the builders. The bags have been used for delivering water successfully from Turkey to points in the Mediterranean, but have not yet been used on the US west coast.

Desalination. This process uses large amounts of fuel to pump seawater through filters to extract the salt. However, several of the US national labs have been researching ways to make desalination more efficient and cost effective. Fresh water supplied by the Israeli-designed plant under construction near San Diego will cost about twice as much as water from the California Aqueduct, but supplies of aqueduct water are being cut back.

The three most practical approaches at this time seem to be more efficient desalination, towing waterbags from surplus-water areas to places that need the water, or living with water rationing. People living in drought areas will have to decide.   



Siberian Mystery Holes

In September, 2013, people living in the Yamal district of Siberia, where the ground is frozen year round, reported seeing smoke rising from a patch of nearby permafrost. On September 27, 2013, the patch exploded and a crater measuring 30m (98 ft) wide and 70m (230 ft) deep appeared. Scientist Marina Liebman of the Russian Academy of Sciences believes the explosion was caused by methane, the main component of natural gas, building up and compressing inside a subsurface pocket.

Two additional holes in the Siberian permafrost were reported in July, 2014. The new holes are as deep as the first, 70 to 90m (200 to 300 ft), but had smaller openings – diameters of 15m (49ft) and 4m (13 ft). The prevailing theory is that global warming is causing thawing of the Siberian permafrost in spots. The thawing permafrost releases methane, a product of the billions of tons of decomposing organic material that has been trapped beneath hundreds of feet of frozen earth for thousands of years. The methane rises through cracks in the earth and into air pockets just below the surface.

Blasts of methane gushed into the air when the pockets erupted, causing the methane content in the regional atmosphere to rise. There has been some speculation that methane will continue to pour out of these holes, that more holes will appear, and that the “dragon’s breath” of escaping methane will load the atmosphere with methane, which is 20 times stronger than CO2 in trapping radiation and heating the planet. Air content measurements taken since the eruptions show a slight rise in methane, but nothing alarming, putting the doomsday speculation into question.

Nevertheless, the arctic is warming at the rate of 0.5C (0.9F) every 10 years, a faster pace than anyplace else on earth. Because of this rapid rate of warming, most scientists anticipate a gradual increase in thaw rate and the escape into the atmosphere of greater amounts of methane.

How fast and how much is a matter under study. It depends largely on how soon the people occupying our planet can reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. If we continue to pour billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year by burning ever increasing amounts of oil, gas, and coal, the added methane in the atmosphere could heat the planet beyond anything previously experienced by mankind. On the other hand, by cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels, and replacing them with wind, solar, thermal, and other forms of renewable energy, we may be able to stave off the coming of a super hot earth.     

July, 2014 – Bad & Not So Bad

Four natural disasters struck different parts of the world in the first half of July, 2014. One was quite destructive, causing multiple fatalities, injuries, population displacement, and considerable property damage.  The other events, though serious, with some injuries and property loss, could have been worse. But all served as reminders that major catastrophes have struck […]

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Can We Feed 9 Billion?

One billion people on this planet suffer from chronic hunger. With world population projected to increase from the present 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, will there be enough food to go around, or will even more human beings go chronically hungry? Chronic hunger means a basic lack of calories and protein to sustain […]

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Rising Seas, Sinking Land, & Flooded Cities

Oceans are warming and expanding in volume. Glaciers are melting at a rapid pace around the world. The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass at an alarming rate. The West Antarctica Ice Sheet is eroding and could eventually collapse from ocean water heated by thermal vents recently discovered underneath it. This all adds up to […]

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Is El Niño Back?

For the past few years La Niña has been the dominant weather driver, bringing cold, wet winters to the northern tier of states in the US, and drought to much of the southwest, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. In 2011, the drought in Texas and the Southwest expanded into the southern portion of the Midwest, […]

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