A Really Big Straw for a Really Big Gulp: The Washington-to-California Pipeline

red pipe from shutterstock.com

Researchers in California have decided that it’s possible to build a really big pipeline in the Pacific Ocean to send a large amount of water from the Columbia River in the Northwest to Northern California. No joke.

One of those researchers, Jack Jones from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in California, spoke about the project at the Hydrofutures conference in Seattle in July. Mr. Jones examined the feasibility of constructing a 33-foot diameter pipeline extending from the mouth of the Columbia River out into the Pacific Ocean at a depth of 328 feet below the surface. The pipeline would run 372 miles to California, where it would connect to the state aqueduct system in Shasta Lake or possibly extended down to the San Francisco Bay where it would be fed into the water system in the San Joaquin River Delta area.

The pipeline, with an estimated price tag of $140 billion, would be constructed primarily of Kevlar and would have a lifetime of just a decade (possibly more according to Jones). No mention was made of what would happen to the pipe if and when the water stopped flowing through it. The pipe would be designed to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of water per year, roughly three times the amount of water delivered by the Colorado River aqueduct to California. That’s also one-third the amount of water delivered each year to the 19 million people served by Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District.

To be fair, the folks at JPL were only tasked with doing a physical feasibility study with a rough cost estimate, and they concluded that the pipeline would be possible to construct. An environmental, political and true financial feasibility study, however, surely would not produce such positive results.

The engineering kid in me is totally excited at the thought of constructing something of this magnitude. The environmental advocate, on the other hand, is not. I can’t help thinking that we're headed in the absolute wrong direction when we even consider projects like these.

Most water consumption in California goes toward irrigation. How about spending some of that $140 billion to make every farm in California a smart farm with water-wise irrigation methods and sensors that help farmers know precisely how much water their fields need? Water saved through efficiency efforts so often reduces or eliminates the need for development of new supplies.

A major water withdrawer in California - power production - is already making changes. The state is requiring all coastal power plants to convert from once through cooling systems – systems that withdraw massive amounts of water - to closed-cycle or air-cooled systems. Requiring all power plants with once-through cooling systems to convert to closed-cycle or air-cooling where feasible would more readily assure that adequate water supplies are available for power production during times of water scarcity and drought.

At a municipal level, water rate structures typically favor those who use water in excess by decreasing the cost per unit of water as customers use more. Rather than looking for new water sources, municipal water providers could implement rate structures such as water budgets that give customers just as much water as they need while charging a lot more for water that is wasted. That $140 billion could subsidize major metropolitan water district conversions to more water efficient rate structures, helping to make new developments, such as pipelines from the Northwest, unnecessary.

These solutions aren’t as sexy as sinking a massive pipeline in the ocean, I know. But they are so much more reasonable and speak to an ethic of conservation and sustainability. Major pipelines represent more of the same craziness as we try to over-engineer our way out of the unsustainable situation we've over-engineered ourselves into.

I have to believe that if this project were brought to fruition, it would become one of many straws that would suck the Columbia River delta dry. We've already seen the devastating impact of over-allocation of the Colorado River on its delta. Let’s not start down that same road with the Columbia River.