The Van Trump Report

Wild Idea to Pump Mississippi River Water West…What You Need to Know

Water shortages in the West are reaching crisis levels in some areas as the Colorado River Basin continues to suffer under the most severe drought in centuries. The so-called “megadrought” over the last 23 years has depleted water supplies in the region’s two largest reservoirs – lakes Mead and Powell – to the point that experts don’t believe they will refill in our lifetime. Whole communities have had their water supply cut off while millions of acres of farmland have been fallowed. As the crisis deepens, some are now investigating the idea of pumping water from the Mississippi River to the West in order to shore up Colorado River supplies.

Diverting water from Midwestern rivers to drier parts of the country is not a new concept. The US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation in 2012 released an analysis that included moving water from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to the Colorado River Basin. The proposal involved conveying water to areas of Colorado and New Mexico. At the time, it was estimated to cost at least $1,700 per acre-feet of water, potentially yield 600,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2060, and take 30 years to construct. The idea was abandoned as economically unviable. 

Still, in 2021, Arizona’s legislature petitioned the US Congress to conduct a study on the diversion of Mississippi River water to the Lower Colorado Basin. Arizona in particular has been hard hit by the depleted Colorado River system as it relies on the resource for 36% of its overall water supply. According to Representative Tim Dunn, a member of the Arizona Legislature and cosponsor of the bill, one “promising” possibility involves piping water that is harvested from Mississippi River flood waters. Dunn says this water is otherwise lost into the Gulf of Mexico.

One analysis of that proposal estimates a pipeline to move water on such a scale would need to be at least 88 feet in diameter, or a 100-foot wide, 61 feet deep channel. Experts say while such an engineering feat is possible, it would be a monumental task from nearly every aspect, from cost and physical construction, to the inevitable political wrangling and slew of environmental concerns.  

First, it’s important to understand how severely depleted the West’s reservoirs are. The water shortage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead is a combined 13.5 trillion gallons – 5.5 trillion gallons in Lake Powell and 8 trillion gallons in Lake Mead. At just 1 cent per gallon, the water alone would cost over $134 billion.

As there is no straight shot from the Midwest to Arizona that traverses unoccupied land, buying land for the project would be another huge expense. Acquiring that land would also likely face numerous obstacles, both politically and from land owners.

From an environmental standpoint, conservationists are concerned about piping in invasive species from the Mississippi. There are other potential adverse environmental impacts as well, including less sediment carried down to Louisiana, where it’s used for coastal restoration.

The biggest problem of all with this idea is the fact that the Mississippi River basin has its own water supply issues. Most recently, drought in the region plunged river levels to near-record lows in 2022, impacting barge traffic and sending shipping costs skyrocketing. Soybean and corn are some of the top agricultural exports on the Mississippi River, accounting for more than half of exports.

While the “cons” side of the equation is pretty stacked, Western states are growing desperate and even the most far-fetched solutions could start to look reasonable if the crisis deepens even further. Critically, if things don’t turn around, states could find themselves pitted against each other as water wars become the new political dividing line. (Sources: Investigate Midwest, Western Illinois University (ResearchGate), Los Angeles Times)

Lake Mead, NV – June 29: An aerial view of the drought’s effects at the Callville Bay Resort & Marina, Lake Mead. Lake Mead is at its lowest level in history since it was filled 85 years ago. The ongoing drought has made a severe impact on Lake Mead and a milestone in the Colorado River’s crisis. High temperatures, increased contractual demands for water and diminishing supply are shrinking the flow into Lake Mead. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the U.S., stretching 112 miles long, a shoreline of 759 miles, a total capacity of 28,255,000 acre-feet, and a maximum depth of 532 feet. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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