Water crisis in West has prompted desperate ideas: Drain the Great Lakes, desalinate ocean water

DENVER – As western water woes continue, some experts and authorities say a national-level problem like this requires an innovative solution.

The U.S. has plenty of drinking water — it's simply in the wrong place. That's a seemingly fixable problem that has inspired a number of creative ideas. Unfortunately, everything except conserving water has proven to be a longshot proposal riddled with logistical, legal or cost problems.

  • The problem: The Colorado River is drying up from drought and overuse. It's the literal lifeblood of the West.

  • A rainy year doesn't solve the water crisis: Rain and snow, particularly in California, has offered temporary relief to water worries. But experts say the water demand in the west is set to keep exceeding supply — unless major conservation efforts successfully roll out.

  • Demand remains high: Native American tribes increasingly demanding their legal rights to water, fast-growing Phoenix and Las Vegas are consuming more water to support development and California and Arizona farmers are under increasing pressure to keep food costs low and production high.

Meanwhile, massive amounts of fresh water are readily available to the East. Ocean water can be processed into drinking water. And even glaciers could be helpful sources of fresh water.

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BACKGROUND: Western water crisis looms as California complicates critical water deal

It's an ironic problem that hearkens back to a famous quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1834 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Water, water, every where; Nor any drop to drink."

Here's a few ideas, some old and some new, about how the West could get more drinking water — and why experts generally regard these as desperate longshots.

Draining the Great Lakes

The idea: Divert water from the Great Lakes into the Colorado River. (A similar proposal has suggested diverting the Mississippi River into Lake Powell.)

How it could work: With 20% of the available surface fresh water in the world, the Great Lakes are essentially massive reservoirs that could quench the thirst of states like Arizona and California.

In 2017, hydrologist Jay Famiglietti, who was then with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, suggested that national solutions are needed.

"...You can imagine that 50 years from now, well we’re already talking about this, but 50 years from now there might actually be a pipeline that brings water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix," he said in an interview. "I think that’s part of our future."

Why it's a longshot: First, to get across the Continental Divide and into the Colorado River, you'd need an uphill pipeline about 1,000 miles long, which is longer than any other drinking water pipeline ever built, and longer than even the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which is 800 miles long. There here might be a flatter route, but it would likely add hundreds of miles in length.

Second, pulling any large amount of water from the Great Lakes is illegal. Water diversions from them are barred by the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement between the eight surrounding states, along with a similar agreement between the United States and Canada.

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Nuclear-powered desalination plants

The idea: Build a network of facilities to remove saltwater from the Pacific Ocean.

How it could work: Desalination on a large scale is a proven technology, widely used in areas with limited drinking water, from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia. California already has several itself.

Why it's a longshot: Desalination is a massively energy-intensive process that makes drinking water by either boiling seawater and capturing the steam, or by pumping it through special membranes under high pressure, called reverse osmosis.

Using solar arrays to power desalinization plants is enticing but faces obstacles. The Persian Gulf nation of Dubai is experimenting with the technology but it's still a pilot project.

Plus there are environmental concerns with dumping the concentrated saltwater back into the ocean.

Harvesting icebergs

The idea: Round up fresh-water icebergs and float them to thirsty coastal cities.

How it could work: About 75% of the Earth's fresh water is frozen in glaciers, almost all of it in Antarctica. California-based engineer and oceanographer John Isaacs is credited with kicking off the debate with a 1949 presentation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in which he suggested it would be cheaper to tow an iceberg to California than alternatives like desalinating seawater.

In subsequent decades, consultants proposed plunking a nuclear power plant atop a massive iceberg to power electric motors, or surrounding one with a cradle of cables attached to a tugboat. In 1977, a Saudi royal sponsored an Iceberg Utilization conference at Iowa State University, complete with a two-ton chunk of ice hauled down from Alaska. Saudi Arabia ultimately invested instead in desalination plants.

Why it's a longshot: So far, no one has figured out a practical way to move an iceberg before a significant amount melts away in the warmer ocean water.

Chopping down forests

The idea: Thin large portions of the national forests to free up more water, either by logging or controlled burns.

How it could work: A single healthy tree needs about 11,000 gallons of water annually, and some Utah authorities are pushing to seriously consider large-scale thinning projects that would remove large swathes of forest. They argue that water could then be used to replenish the shrinking Great Salt Lake.

The National Science Foundation in 2018 published a study that found over a nearly 20-year period starting in the late 1990s, wildfire-burned forests allowed an extra 20 billion gallons of water to flow through the Kings and American River Basins. That study was based on losing half of the trees in a given area.

Why it's a longshot: Wildfires generate massive amounts of pollution, including releasing large quantities of carbon, which can accelerate climate change. Allowing large-scale commercial logging, especially near big cities, would likely draw lawsuits from environmental groups over concerns about habitat loss. And let's also not forget that trees take up carbon dioxide, so cutting them down might be a short-term solution that could exacerbate climate change.

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What's the solution to West's water crisis? Desperate ideas explained