Californians are desperate for water, so you can’t blame them for greedily eyeing the storm-sodden east. Look at all that snow! That’s just frozen water, right? But seriously, trucking snow from Boston over the Rockies is a pipe dream. Or…not the right kind of pipe, anyway.
But what about Alaska? The state is weeping snowmelt into the North Pacific. Nobody’s using it. It’s close to California, relatively speaking. And a pipe wouldn’t have to cross over any continental divides. It’s so crazy it just might work!
Or is it? Hare-brained schemes to bring out-of-state water to California are nothing new, and this idea doesn’t come from nowhere. It was born in the late 1980s by Alaskan governor Wally Hickel, who was always exuberant about selling his state’s resources. The original plan called for four 14-foot diameter pipes running at least 1,400 miles from the mouth of one of southeast Alaska’s monster rivers to one of California’s reservoirs. These would deliver about 1.3 trillion gallons of water a year. (California is currently about 11 trillion gallons of water in deficit.) Either of the Alaskan rivers under consideration—the Copper and the Stikine—have outflows more than double the combined flow of the Sacramento/San Joaquin rivers, California’s largest watershed. So it’s not like Alaska would miss the water. “If you’re going to put this symbolically, this project holds a lot of water,” says Don Kash, an emeritus tech policy researcher at George Mason University and the chair of a two-day meeting in 1991 that discussed the pipeline’s potential.
But water never comes for free. Laying pipeline on the continental shelf is tricky business and would require armies of surveyors (and navies of pipe-laying ships). And Alaska is north, but not uphill. The pipeline would need pumping stations every 150 miles to keep the water flowing. In 1991, the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment calculated that the water pipeline would cost $110 billion dollars and take up to 15 years to complete. In the same paper, they compared the project to the Panama Canal, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and the English Channel Tunnel in terms of cost and complexity. All of which, they added, went way over budget. On the other hand, if it had taken 15 years to build in 1991, Californians would have been drinking Alaska’s Finest H20 since Justin Timberlake started bringing sexy back.
So yeah, this wouldn’t be a cheap fix. The Office of Technology Assessment calculated that each one of those gallons of water would cost at least ten times as much as other options—in 1991 dollars. These alternatives included desalination, waste water reclamation, and plain ole’ conservation. But the current drought is the worst in the state’s history, and doesn’t look likely to let up soon. On the other hand, the state’s economy is better, and the tax base is about 8 million people stronger than 25 years ago. “The share of the cost would be spread out, and be spread out in a more significant way,” says Nils Andreassen, the executive director of the Institute of the North, a natural resources think tank founded by Hickel after he retired from politics. So how does this idea sound now?
Unfortunately: Still crazy. “It’s just not something we’re even looking at,” says Nancy Vogel, a spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources. Even with the extended drought and the expanded tax base, the cost of Alaskan water is too great. Partly that’s because most of the water would go to crops, not cities, so the costs would be passed on to food markets. “Having water that is this expensive go to agricultural crops is the kind of thing that would cause economists hair to go white,” says Kash. And even though advances in pipe laying logistics and materials have driven the engineering costs of the project down, it’s probable that modern environmental permitting would more than make up for those cuts in cost. “I think the biggest question would be, how does it impact fisheries?” says Andreassen. Because you know, putting a huge suction pipe at the mouth of a river doesn’t sound like it would help baby salmon get out to sea. And then there’s the question of invasive species: What kind of health risks would we face if the larvae from Alaska’s Jurassic-sized mosquito snuck into the pipe?
So apologies to all the California dreamers. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ water (any more than you already do).