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Pipe Dreams - A New Report from NRDC on Water Pipeline Proposals in the West

Barry Nelson

Posted June 20, 2012

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Projects in the Pipeline

You hear it all over – the dam building era is over.  MSNBC said it.  The National Research Council also said it -- in a far drier fashion.  In a report on climate change impacts on the Colorado River, the NRC concluded that the potential for new surface storage in the Colorado River Basin is “limited.”  But this pronouncement, if correct, begs a question – what comes next?  After the dam building era, then what?  

The NRC offered a theory in that same report on the Colorado, stating that “(d)eclining prospects for traditional water supply projects are perhaps more correctly seen not as an end to “water projects” but as part of a shift toward nontraditional means for enhancing water supplies and better managing water demands.”  Fortunately, there’s plenty of evidence of a new generation of efficiency-based water management tools.  But another trend has gotten far less attention.

Released today, NRDC’s new white paper “Pipe Dreams – Water Supply Pipeline Projects in the West” reveals an often overlooked trend – a new generation of proposed water pipeline projects around the West.  We found fifteen such proposals.  Then, as the paper neared completion, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Study released a compilation of water management proposals that includes another half dozen proposed pipelines.   The first fifteen of these projects are shown on the map above.   These, and the Basin Study’s additional proposals, are summarized in the paper.

We also reviewed existing water projects and found that this new generation of water development projects are fundamentally different from those in the past and raise a different set of issues. 

How are these projects different and what questions do they raise?  Here are a few examples.

Questionable Water Sources:  In the old days, water engineers built water projects that usually included two features - dams to capture and store water and pipelines or canals to carry that water to where it was needed.   Today, increasingly, water engineers are proposing to build new pipelines crisscrossing the West, mostly without the storage projects associated with past water projects.  (Only three of the projects we examined propose new reservoirs.)  This raises a simple question: where will the water come from to fill these new pipelines?  In many cases, the answer is far from clear.  

Several of these proposed pipelines would tap into groundwater basins in arid regions – like Texas, Eastern Nevada and the Mojave Desert.  Such pumping can produce groundwater overdraft, threatening long-term reliability.  Other projects, such as the proposed Lake Powell  and Flaming Gorge pipelines, would pump from river systems that are overtapped today – raising obvious questions about the supplies that new pipelines would generate.   (Interestingly, we found that the Colorado River Basin is the focal point for new pipeline proposals.  I’ll focus on the Colorado in a subsequent post.) 

Simply put, many of these proposed pipelines would rely on questionable water sources.   The reason this new generation of proposed projects, unlike past water projects, include so few surface storage facilities is simple.  There’s little or no water left to capture in many western rivers.  Many of these projects are particularly troubling in light of the impacts that climate change will have on western rivers.   Climate scientists and the Bureau of Reclamation have concluded that much of the West will be drier in the future – raising more questions about the reliability of supplies from proposed pipelines.

Given the questionable sources some of these projects would rely on, poorly designed pipelines could hit communities with a double whammy – future water shortages and skyrocketing water rates to pay for these projects.  Some of these projects could undermine the water supply reliability for the very communities that would pay for expensive pipeline projects. 

Conflicts with Existing Users:  As I will explain in my next post, some pipeline projects would divert water currently used by others – setting the stage for another generation of western water wars. 

Costs and Alternatives:  Most proposed pipelines wouldn’t produce much water for their high price tag.  Around the West, water managers are investing in creative water supply tools founded on increasing the efficiency with which we use current supplies.  Increasingly the skyrocketing price-per-acre-foot costs of new pipeline projects don’t compare well with the alternatives.   

Energy Use and GHGs:  Traditionally, most water projects generated significant hydropower.  Even if some pumping was required, most were net energy generators – which often played a key role in financing water projects.  In contrast, most of the proposed pipelines reviewed in this paper would require enormous amounts of energy to pump water to distant – and higher – destinations.  Some would require more energy per acre-foot than seawater desalination.  This energy use, if provided by fossil fuels, could further exacerbate the ongoing climate change that is resulting in a drier West.  By contrast, many alternative water strategies like groundwater cleanup, water recycling and stormwater capture can require far less energy – and investments in efficiency can produce dramatic energy savings.  Put another way, most of these pipeline projects “cost” energy – while some of the alternatives “produce” energy. 

There is one way in which many of these pipeline projects are similar to past water development – potential environmental impacts.  Only a few of these projects would dam rivers and flood valleys.  But in water-short regions, additional water diversions can increase the challenges facing struggling fish and wildlife populations and harm downstream recreation. 

The paper includes a range of recommendations – focused on the issues summarized above – for the local agencies that would bear the lion’s share of the costs for most of these projects, as well as for state and federal agencies.  The most fundamental of those recommendations is that all agencies – especially local agencies charged with serving their ratepayers – should examine proposed pipeline projects carefully, and on a level playing field with the growing list of cost-effective alternatives.  The West faces a warmer and drier future.  We need to design water solutions that will work in the coming century.  If poorly conceived pipeline projects are constructed, natural resources and local ratepayers could both pay a steep price. 

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MikeJun 21 2012 12:54 PM

The author is correct in saying "We need to design water solutions that will work in the coming century." But those designs will be faulty and inadequate if they are developed according to the new NRDC report, which repeats suggestions by the Pacific Institute for saving 700,000 acre-feet of water by California farmers. The suggestions in the Institute's 2010 report overstated the water use efficiency potential on California farms by at least a factor of two and maybe much, much more.

Claiming that farmers can conserve such huge amounts of water by switching to less water intensive crops and adopting sprinkler/drip irrigation systems to replace gravity/flood irrigation simply ignores reality. The decision to plant which crop is governed by the marketplace and will constantly change for some farmers. Telling a farmer which crop he or she is allowed to plant is a sure-fire way to run them out of business. That increases unemployment, reduces food choices at the grocery store and increases prices for consumers who are already strapped by a weak economy.

There are numerous factors---soil, weather, cost, energy, etc.---a farmer must consider in determining which irrigation practice to implement. California farmers have already invested more than $2 billion in upgraded irrigation systems since 2003 and more improvements occur every year. Consumers benefit from the innovation and efficiency on California farms. Forcing changes that don't make sense is a recipe for disaster.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

EricJun 27 2012 10:34 AM

There are numerous factors---soil, weather, cost, energy, etc.---a farmer must consider in determining which CROPS TO GROW! If the market demands grandma-berries you don't kill your grandma to meet market demands. Likewise if the market demands water intensive crops, but you don't have very much water, then you find a market for some other product or you go some place where there's a better water supply. If we let the market force our hand in this we're all screwed.

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