William Shatner hugging a globe.

Water Monitoring: Live Long & Prosper

William Shatner has recently started a kickstarter campaign to save California. He proposes that by raising US $30,000,000,000, a pipeline could be built to transport water to California from Seattle, Washington.

Shatner, most famously known for boldly going where no man has gone before, is neither being particularly bold, nor is his proposed enterprise going anywhere new. Continental-scale, inter-basin water transfer schemes have been around for a very long time.

The Romans were famous for the aqueducts they built. One lesson learned from the Romans is that water infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain. The Romans funded these mega projects by conquering new lands to provide resources such as slaves for labour. A flaw in their model was that the more land they conquered the more infrastructure they needed to build resulting in growth that depended on growth, which is inherently unsustainable. It is noteworthy that some of these projects outlived the economy they were built for by a couple of thousand years. Perhaps the Romans were a trifle too bold.

A more recent example that was even bolder was the NAWAPA project. The North American Water and Power Alliance was conceived to capture water in Alaska and the Yukon and transport it south through the rocky mountain trench to Montana where it would be directed to supplement flow in both the Yellowstone and Colorado Rivers.

Many of the stream gauges in Northern BC and the Yukon, where I cut my teeth as a young stream hydrographer, were initially funded to establish the feasibility of NAWAPA. If those gauges didn’t exist it, it’s possible that I would never have got my first job with the Water Survey and the career that I have enjoyed so much. By today’s standards NAWAPA isn’t a megaproject – it would be a gigaproject.

NAWAPA was not considered feasible at that time … but at that time California didn’t have an economy of US$2.2 trillion, of which US$43 billion is from agriculture. At that time California had an abundance of freshwater – in fact, I used to holiday in Northern California for some of the best whitewater kayaking in the world on many of the rivers that now exist in name only. At that time, the Arctic was full of thick sea ice, setting up a strong jet stream creating favourable weather patterns in California.

Perhaps the proposal that Shatner is making is as bold a plan as we should consider. But perhaps he should add a few zeros to his estimate if he really wants to make a difference. He is probably understating the risks of not compensating for climate-driven re-distribution of water availability. What is the right size of project?  I am pretty sure that failing to respond in any meaningful way is not a path to good health and prosperity.

One alternative to water transfer projects would be to move people from California to the Yukon, where there is lots of water. That doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea. Desalination might work but it would require doubling California’s energy demand. Where is the new energy going to come from?

Adapting to climate change is ugly.

Another alternative is to do nothing. Doing nothing will substantially reduce our ability to feed ourselves and will most likely drive hundreds of thousands of people into poverty.

Not adapting to climate change is ugly.

There are tough decisions ahead. Decisions will be made and, in the absence of adequate hydrological information, the decision will be either a failure to respond or a ‘best guess’ that comes with a high risk of failure. Water monitoring to reduce risk in such tough decisions is more important than ever.

It is still possible that data that I collected 35 years ago will be influential in a decision to either revive, or bury, one of the most ambitious water transfer projects of all time. However, that is clearly not enough. Every watershed along the route would be profoundly impacted and many have never been gauged. Relevant, reliable, and trustworthy hydrological information is required before we can be confident that sum of consequences of action are substantially less than the sum of consequences of inaction.

Photo credit: Book jacket of ‘Shatner Rules’ by William Shatner with Chris Regan.

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  • Jesus Najera-Garza
    Posted at 2:52 pm, April 30, 2015

    …”Considering the significant recharge of groundwater is mainly in the highest mountains, where it rains the most ”

  • Jesus Najera-Garza
    Posted at 2:44 pm, April 30, 2015

    Dear Hydrologist Stu: What about groundwater?? … the fault movement of last year, set free a lot of confined groundwater in Napa Valley (?); even though “the hydrology establishment”, says nothing on that regard … !?!?

    I understand the groundwater flow takes several years, since it rains and recharge, til the groundwater is pumped out the regional aquifer … isn’t it??? … Doesn’t it compensate for dry years with the rainy ones??? … making the so called “overexploited aquifers”, “just a myth” sustained by some kind of “green $$$ interests”???


  • Maury D. Gaston
    Posted at 1:59 pm, May 20, 2015

    The only question I had about Captain Kirk’s plan was why is it so limited?

    Here’s a plan, published one day before Shatner was in the news.

    And the Texas legislature has a bill for a state-wide water grid.


    • Stu Hamilton
      Posted at 2:00 pm, May 20, 2015

      Hi Maury,

      I am reminded of the E.O. Wilson quote “One Planet, One Experiment”. There is no precedent to say that any solution to providing enough clean water where it is needed, when it is needed, at the volume that is needed, will be successful. There is increasing drama in the reporting on what failure will look like. However, there isn’t much of a conversation about what success would look like. Will success be measured in legal terms that justify and persist archaic water laws? Will success be measured in gardening terms of having enough ‘free’ potable water to water our lawns? Will success be measured in terms source water protection and sustainable aquatic ecosystems? How would you measure success for any of the initiatives that are being proposed to solve the water problem?

      • Ordinary
        Posted at 6:58 am, August 31, 2015

        I agree that access to good drinikng water and also running water be made available in all Canadian communities. The impact on health wouldbenefit all Canadians. It is also the just thing to do. Keeping water resources as non-commercial is also a good aspect of this resolution.

  • D Clark
    Posted at 10:31 pm, June 13, 2015

    This seems so short-sighted. The carbon impact alone of a project like this would be enormous. Water is the single biggest user of electricity in our state. The power isn’t free.

    Californians are a wasteful lot. Those in LA want a simple solution that allows them to keep their pools and water lawns. But Hollywood doesn’t understand the practicalities of projects. This is a hair-brained approach. We can get desal in for $3500 an acre foot (conservation is $150/acre foot) – this would probably double or triple that. A four foot diameter pipeline concept is cute. That would be 1/100th of the capacity of the peripheral canal (guess)?

    Sorry Kirk – you missed the mark on this one. The only answer is conservation – we need as a people to simply use less water. Recent recovery projects by the SFPUC are saving a million gallons per year in a dozen commercial buildings. It’s a foreign concept to many in so cal – but it’s the only with any scientific merit. use less.

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