News Feature | April 17, 2017

Is Getting Great Lakes Water To The Southwest Just A Pipedream?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Are the Great Lakes the best hope for water security in the perennially parched Southwest?

The idea of piping Great Lakes water to Nevada, Arizona, and other desert states in the region is not exactly intuitive, but it has been discussed for decades.

“The idea's been dismissed for as long as it's been pitched, with adamant opposition from Great Lakes states, whose representatives crafted a pact with Canada just to stop such a thing,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

The idea is back — and the foremost water policy leaders in the nation are discussing it, including Jay Famiglietti, the chief water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. He discussed the pipeline possibility in an interview with Ideastream this month, noting that global water supply challenges are an almost “unsolvable problem.”

The Free Press summarized his remarks:

Because of the Great Lakes' abundance of potable, fresh water, "you might imagine that there's a giant bull's-eye that can be seen from space that's sitting above the Great Lakes — meaning it's a target area, in a sense, for the rest of the country," Famiglietti said.

"Because there's so much fresh water, you can imagine that 50 years from now ... there might actually be a pipeline that brings water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix. I think that that's part of our future."

Great Lakes communities are not crazy about that idea. Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the nonprofit For Love of Water, a Great Lakes conservation group, spoke to the Free Press.

"I don't think people in this region believe that is part of our future," she said, per the report.

At the moment, rules are in place to protect the Great Lakes from a national water grab.

“The Midwest relies upon the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement between the eight states surrounding the lakes and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 as the primary safeguard of the lakes' water supply. The compact, among other things, seeks to prohibit any large-scale diversion of water outside the Great Lakes basin. A similar, bi-national agreement also involves the Canadian provinces on the Great Lakes — Ontario and Quebec,” the Free Press reported.

Famiglietti, however, described a future where these regulations could change.

"I think that for these reasons, that we do have water in some places — the northern half of the country has a lot more water than the southern half — and so as the population grows, and as climate continues to change, we probably will have to move water from where it is to where it is not, and that will require some rethinking of some of these policies and laws," he said, per the Free Press.

Famiglietti is not alone in imagining pipelines from water-rich regions.

The possibility had a high-profile backer in former “Star Trek” actor William Shatner when the California drought was ravaging the state.

“I want $30 billion … to build a pipeline like the Alaska pipeline. Say, from Seattle — a place where there’s a lot of water. There’s too much water,” Shatner told Yahoo’s David Pogue two years ago, per The Los Angeles Times.

The Los Angeles Times described the chilly reception southern California received upon eyeing water in the Pacific Northwest:

When Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in 1990 proposed digging aqueducts that would grab water from the Columbia and Snake rivers, Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt responded: “I have the distinct impression that you are trying to steal my water.”

Massive pipeline projects may seem unrealistic, especially at a time when federal funding, like water, is scarce.

But Paul Huttner, the chief meteorologist for Minnesota Public Radio, has pointed out that this could change. He raised the possibility that policymakers will seek to build a 900-mile pipeline from Lake Superior to the Green River watershed in southwest Wyoming.

"Yes, a Superior-Green River pipeline seems unrealistic, even impossible at first glance," Huttner wrote for Minnesota Public Radio.

He continued: “As remote as an idea like this seems today, I can’t help but wonder if it could be a proposed reality in the future. As I witness climate changes unfold this forward looking meteorologist, geographer and student of climate science can envision seismic changes ahead that might seem far fetched today. Write this down as climate change accelerates. Water is the new oil.”