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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Can We Solve Drought by Piping Water Across the Country?

Why don’t we create a national acequia system to capture excess rain falling primarily in the Eastern United States and pipeline it to the drought in the West? Carol P. Chamberland, Albuquerque, N.M

The idea of taking water from one community and giving it to another has some basis in American history. In 1913, Los Angeles opened an aqueduct to carry water from Owens Valley, 230 miles north of the city, to sustain its growth.

But the project, in addition to costing some $23 million at the time, greatly upset Owens Valley residents, who so resented losing their water that they took to dynamiting the aqueduct. Repeatedly.

Today, there are some enormous water projects in the United States, though building a pipeline that spanned a significant stretch of the country would be astronomically more difficult. The distance between Albuquerque, for example, and the Mississippi River — perhaps the closest hypothetical starting point for such a pipeline — is about 1,000 miles, crossing at least three states along the way. Moving that water all the way to Los Angeles would mean piping it at least 1,800 miles across five states.

So the engineering and permitting challenges alone would be daunting. And that’s assuming the local and state governments that would have to give up their water would be willing to do so.

China dealt with similar challenges to build a colossal network of waterways that is transferring water from the country’s humid south to its dry north. But of course, China’s system of government makes engineering feats of that scale somewhat more feasible to pull off.

For the United States, it would be easier to just build a series of desalination plants along the West coast, according to Greg Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. And before turning to desalination, which is itself energy-intensive and thus expensive, communities in the West should work harder at other steps, such as water conservation and recycling, he said.

“It’s not worth it,” Dr. Pierce said of the pipeline idea. “You’d have to exhaust eight other options first.”

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