Although economists and market forces don’t seem to have figured it out yet, water is the world’s most valuable resource.  It’s essential for life, yet only 1 percent of all water is fresh and possibly available for consumption; another 2 percent is fresh, but it’s frozen in glaciers and the polar ice caps.  The rest is salt water, and can only be made fresh by energy-intensive and very expensive desalination projects.

So what do you do when you don’t have enough water?  The answer depends on how wealthy and powerful you are.

If you’re poor and isolated – i.e. you’re among the largest segment of the Earth’s population – you must put the same water to multiple uses. You drink a little, then wash with it, then boil it for cooking, and then finally use whatever remains for your plants.

But apart from its limited supply, the main problem with water is that it’s not where it’s needed.  In North America, most of it is in the north, while the populations and agricultural regions consuming it are further south.  It’s an obvious problem that appears to have an obvious solution: bring the water south.  The fact most water is in Canada  is at worst a minor irritant. If you’re rich and powerful, you can take whatever you need from somewhere, someone, else.    

Suggestions for how water might be transferred include building an underwater pipeline from Alaska or Canada to California, towing icebergs and water-filled plastic bags from Alaska, using a fleet of converted oil tankers, and diverting northern rivers south through a series of canals and man-made lakes.

The benefit-cost analysis of such schemes says they’re not even worth thinking about.  Not yet, anyway.  But they’re already under serious discussion.

A 1700-mile 20-foot diameter plastic pipe from Alaska to California would need pumping stations on land every 150 miles, some of which would have to be in Canada.  For all that, California would get only 10 percent of the water it needs.  Other regions of the USA would get nothing.  Towing icebergs and or bags and using tankers would bring even less water and be even more vulnerable to terrorist attack.  

The only remotely viable solution seems to be the North American Water and Power Alliance plan, or NAWAPA, which was developed many years ago to tap into northern rivers “wasting” their water by dumping it into the ocean.

NAWAPA would turn around rivers in Alaska and British Columbia.  Nearly everyone in Alaska already gets an annual oil-royalty check;  NAWAPA could mean they’ll get an annual water-royalty check.

But what about Canada?  Canadians have an almost mystical relationship with “their” water, and they feel no compulsion to cooperate with the USA.  But this time they might have to go along with their southern neighbors; the US argues NAFTA covers anything which can through a pipeline. 

Besides, NAWAPA is of such a scale and importance what Canadians think won’t matter.     A 1.3 million square mile drainage area in Alaska, the Yukon, and B.C. would be connected to Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi by canals, tunnels, and existing rivers taking about 400 million acre-feet per year.  Moving this water downhill would also generate millions of kilowatts of electricity.

A canal from Lake Erie would run to the Ohio River and into Lake Michigan.  From there it would go to the Mississippi. An aqueduct would connect the Great Lakes to the Hudson and New York  Eventually water taken from the Great Lakes would be replaced by water from Hudson Bay and James Bay in Canada.

In the west, the Rocky Mountain Trench in Canada, between B.C. and Alberta, would be used for storage.  There’d be a thirty-foot deep canal from there to Lake Superior, allowing shipping to go from the Lakes to the Rocky Mountains.   With locks, ships could one day  reach Vancouver from the St. Lawrence…a man-made Northwest Passage.

Water from the Trench reservoir would go to Flathead Lake, Montana. From there it will go through the Great Basin to a new lake, Lake Nevada, and on to a new reservoir, Lake Vegas.

Then it would be piped across Death Valley and finally to Los Angeles.  Lake Vegas will be linked with Lake Mead and then the Colorado.   Water will go south from Lake Nevada to Arizona and New Mexico.

Water from the Columbia would be piped to Shasta, where existing infrastructure would take it south.

The consequences for a myriad ecosystems would be profound.  The consequences for a society premised on the conviction it can do whatever it wants and then manipulate nature to fit its needs would be catastrophic; when this water is used, there won’t be any more. NAWAPA would thus be another step, a giant step, closer to the final precipice.



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