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The Rip Van Winkle of Water Projects - NAWAPA Remerges after a 50 Year Slumber

Barry Nelson

Posted December 4, 2009

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Wow.  A communications firm in Falls Church Virginia has suggested reviving a continent-spanning water project called the North American Water and Power Alliance as a jobs creation project for the nation.

It won’t be built, but if you’ve never heard of NAWAPA, it’s worth revisiting this moment in water history.  NAWAPA is one of the largest water projects ever proposed -- conceived in 1960s by Parsons Engineering in Southern California.  (Full disclosure.  My brother worked at Parsons for years, but not on water.  He stubbornly resisted my repeated requests that he pilfer anything related to NAWAPA from the firm’s archives.)  The project would have dammed and reversed the flow of the Yukon and other rivers.   Tunnels, pumping stations and canals would have moved water along the Rocky Mountains to the desert southwest.  It even featured a “nuclear excavation” option, to speed the process of blasting mountains out of the way.   I recall reading about this project as a child.  (When I was 10, my grandmother gave me a subscription to Popular Mechanics.) I thought it was really cool. 


If there was a moment at which the traditional water project engineering paradigm reached its zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective), it might have been at the release of the NAWAPA proposal.

There are many reasons why this project will never be built – the unlikelihood of cooperation from Alaska, Canada and the intervening states, the obvious environmental problems.  But there is a much more prosaic reason – money.  Economics is the reason water managers in the water-short American West have been steadily moving away from traditional water projects and toward efficiency, recycling, groundwater management and other less glamorous tools.  These tools are cheaper, greener and far easier to build.  As an environmentalist, perhaps I should credit our lawyers and letter-writing members, but the truth is that there is little desire among water agencies to pay for massive projects.  (There is, however, among some agricultural water users, a long cherished hope for billions in new state or federal subsidies for old-fashioned water development.)

A waterless urinal, high efficiency clothes washer or drip irrigation system may not have the monolithic appeal of a series of dams, tunnels and canals stretching from the arctic to the desert, but they’re the solutions that work.  We’ll need plenty of smart engineers to tap into these tools, but that work will be done by engineers who talk on a regular basis with their accounts and economists – and who keep their ratepayers in mind.

The waterless urinal folks just need a smart PR firm to make their ribbon cutting ceremony as dramatic as one for a project reaching from the Yukon to Yuma.  Any suggestions? 

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Tim in AlbionDec 6 2009 12:18 AM

I think the "communications firm" is, basically, a guy. Who had tried to push this mother-of-all-boondoggles a few decades ago, with no success, and is now trying to spin it with all the latest buzzwords: economic stimulus, jobs, even "green energy."

Lloyd AlterDec 6 2009 03:58 PM

I think the The Great Recycling and Northern Development (GRAND) Canal of North America or GCNA was bigger. Engineer Thomas Kierans is still flogging it even though he is well into his nineties. He wants to dam James Bay and collect all the water that flows into it and ship it south to the great lakes. It was deemed to be a much less intrusive and destructive approach than NAWAPA. Alas, his gloriously cheezy geocities website is no longer up, but you can see bits of it on wikipedia, click on my name above. Conspiracy theorists are convinced it is still going to be built.

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