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Here are 2 reasons why the drought in California won't open the door to Great Lakes water

Apr 23, 2015

The two reasons: 1) the process of moving water that far, and that high, wouldn't make economic sense; 2) Great Lakes water is locked down politically.

The ongoing drought in California has hit its fourth year. 

Officials imposed the state’s first-ever water restrictions on cities and towns, and California farmers are drilling deeper and deeper in search of water for their crops.

Meanwhile — here in the Great Lakes region — water levels are going up.

The dichotomy has raised an old fear – that arid states in the West will come after Great Lakes water.

The fear, on a basic level, makes sense. We’re happily swimming in water and they’re fighting over it, so why wouldn’t California try to tap the Great Lakes to solve the current crisis?

It’s a worry that’s been around for a long time.

Is it even physically possible?

Sure. It could be done, but it just wouldn't make economic sense.

In the early 1980s, Jonathan Bulkley was part of a team that looked at the possibility of moving water from Lake Superior to South Dakota. Bulkley is an emeritus professor in civil engineering at the University of Michigan.

“Our conclusion was the total cost would far exceed the value of the water,” he said.

Here's a crude, Google Map look at the proposed route:

Duluth to Yankton by foot in Google Maps. This is the basic direction the researchers looked at.
Credit Google

Back then, he and his team found that just building the infrastructure would come with a steep price tag — $26 billion just for the pipelines and pumps to get the water to the upper Missouri River. That would be more than $60 billion in today’s dollars.

How much power would be needed?

“We found it would take seven 1,000 megawatt power plants dedicated to lifting the water,” Bulkley said.

That’s just to move it up to Yankton, South Dakota – a distance of around 500 miles – now try pumping it 2,000 miles to California over two mountain ranges.

Would it be cheaper to pump the water from say – Seattle to California? William Shatner thinks so. The actor plans to start a Kickstarter campaign.

"I want $30 billion on my Kickstarter campaign to build a pipeline, like the Alaska pipeline," said Shatner to Yahoo Tech's David Pogue. "I want to build a pipeline, say from Seattle, a place where’s there’s a lot of water."

Cities and towns that are outside of the Great Lakes watershed can ask for the water, but they have to be in counties that straddle the watershed line.

Could Shatner's wild idea work? Could a massive pipeline be built?

I checked in with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They found the idea of a pipeline from the Great Lakes to California laughable. A spokesman for a massive water project in Arizona told me the same thing years ago

Barrett says for states like Arizona, California, and even Texas it would be cheaper for them to build desalinization plants - these plants convert ocean water into drinking water.

"I mean why should Texas build for a canal and then have to maintain it from the Great Lakes down to the state of Texas when they can go to the Gulf Coast and build several desalinization plants, and then just pipe it wherever they need it?"

Plus, the spokeswoman for the Corps said the political climate for big new projects like long distance water pipelines, or like dams, just isn’t there. She said all their energy is spent on maintaining what they have now.

Limitations caused by the Great Lakes Compact

Plus, here in the Great Lakes region, there’s this little thing called the Great Lakes Compact.

It’s a combination of federal and state laws that ban diversions of Great Lakes water except in limited cases.

Only cities and towns near the Great Lakes can ask for the water.

"Basically it's these areas where the Great Lakes basin line is very close to the Great Lakes shoreline."

“Basically it’s these areas where the Great Lakes basin line is very close to the Great Lakes shoreline," said Peter Annin. He's the author of Great Lakes Water Wars, and the director of the Environmental Change Initiative at the University of Notre Dame.

Annin says the Great Lakes Compact is quite strict.

Cities and towns that are outside of the Great Lakes watershed can ask for the water – but they have to be in counties that straddle the watershed line. So, for example, half of the county is in the watershed, and half is out.

Annin says the biggest pressure for Great Lakes water will come from our neighbors – think Indiana, Illinois, and southern Wisconsin.

First test?

Waukesha, Wisconsin might prove to be the first test of the Great Lakes Compact. The city's current water supply is contaminated with radium. They have to treat it heavily, so they’re asking for Great Lakes water.

Marketplace's Sarah Gardner is from Waukesha. She did this great story on what's happening there. 

“Really, it’s a no-brainer of a decision,” says Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility. “The Great Lakes is the best, most reliable and only reasonable alternative for the city of Waukesha.”

Certainly it’s the simplest and most direct solution. But Waukesha would be the first city outside the Great Lakes basin to apply for Great Lakes water under a restrictive law called the Great Lakes Compact ...

Under the Great Lakes Compact, the city would have to do a lot just to get Great Lakes water.

"[They would have to] agree to return the water, prove that the water diversion has no adverse environmental impacts, and show that there are no alternative water supplies," says Peter Annin. "And then they also have to implement a strict water conservation program that shows that if they’re going to get this water, they have to use it responsibly."

Waukesha’s request is in front of Wisconsin officials now. If they approve it, the request would go before all eight Great Lakes governors or their representatives on the Great Lakes Compact Council. If even one state denies the request – Waukesha would be out of luck.

So for political and economic reasons – Great Lakes water isn’t going to be shipped away anytime soon.