Moving Water: Solution for Climate-Change-Caused Droughts?

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 12, 2015 21
river otters

Freshwater, such as that in rivers, makes up less than 0.01 percent of Earth’s water. ©Bob Leggett

It’s been raining for the better part of two weeks where I live in Wisconsin. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the grass so decked out in neon green.

It’s a sharp contrast to what’s going on in the American West, according to a story from CBS News this morning. California is in the midst of one of its most severe droughts on record, and the state is turning a dull brown.

What’s surprising, however, is that despite this fact, the lawns surrounding many megamansions there remain verdant—thanks to generous watering by their owners. News videos often point the finger at moneyed celebrities, who would rather have a green lawn and pay the $500 fine than adhere to the state’s mandatory water conservation regulation and let their immediate environs go to beige.

For me, the bigger issue that this particular use of scarce water suggests is how we will choose to allocate our dwindling natural resources as climate change continues to rapidly reshape our world.

In other words, are some places, such as California, “too big to fail”?

About 2 percent of the world’s water is locked up in glaciers, ice caps and permanent snow. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Moving water to where it’s needed

Unfortunately, about 99 percent of the Earth’s water is unfit for drinking. Most of it—97 percent—is saltwater, and roughly another 2 percent is locked up in ice caps and glaciers. Freshwater (water in lakes, rivers and streams) is extremely limited, making up less than 0.01 percent of the planet’s water. Groundwater, freshwater that is underground, constitutes an additional 0.6 percent. In the United States, more than 250 million people depend on freshwater and groundwater for their drinking supplies. And every day, getting that water from its source to those who need it is becoming more complex.

Last year, for the first time, a team of researchers mapped the water sources of more than 500 cities. The results, which were published in the journal Global Environmental Change, demonstrated that our large urban areas move 200,000 Olympic-swimming-pool-size amounts (133 billion gallons) of water almost 17,000 miles each day.

Ranking first in the world in cross-basin water transfers is Los Angeles, California, which imports 2.35 billion gallons per day from distant rivers—such as the Colorado, as well as from rivers in the central and northern parts of the state—to satisfy the demands of its 13.2 million people.

Before we cast too many aspersions on California, however, we have to remember that when you walk into any grocery store in America today, chances are that the fresh produce you see was grown in the Golden State. Up to half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables are produced in the Central Valley between Los Angeles and Sacramento, one of the Earth’s most fertile regions. Not having enough water here will have immediate impacts on the food supply for all of us.

Taking what’s mine

This brings us back to my very green Midwest. As strange as it may sound, other places might soon be eyeing what I consider to be my water.

Because of California’s large agricultural industry, it may be too big to fail. ©Colby J. Brokvist

Twenty percent of the world’s fresh surface water (six quadrillion gallons) is held in the Great Lakes, and Wisconsin is bordered by two of them: Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Even though no Western state is actively seeking Great Lakes water at the present time, the idea isn’t so far-fetched. If droughts worsen, desperate times could someday call for desperate measures.

In fact, in 1981 the Powder River Pipeline Company wanted to pipe Lake Superior water to Wyoming. The company planned to add this water to its coal to form slurry and then pump it back to coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. They argued that this would be cheaper and more efficient than shipping coal by rail, even though 1,900 miles of 42-inch pipe would have to be buried. Powder River hoped to obtain the water needed near the Western coal beds, but if that didn’t work out, they would lay a second pipeline to carry water westward from Lake Superior. The idea was not approved. In 1982, Congress mandated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study the feasibility of using Great Lakes water to replenish supplies needed for the heavily agricultural Great Plains states. Luckily, it was found unfeasible. And as recently as 1998, Canadian officials green-lighted a proposal to let the Nova Group use oceangoing freighters to ship Great Lakes water to Asia.

Realizing there were no official regulations to stop such shipments, lawmakers, after years of negotiations, announced in 2008 the signing of a historic compact between the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces that was designed to decide who gets Great Lakes water and how to keep it inside the basin.

Some, such as Peter Annin, author of the book The Great Lakes Water Wars, have stated that we are leaving the century of oil and entering the century of water. While I love eating fresh fruits and vegetables just as much as the next person, I hope that as we move forward, our precious water isn’t siphoned off for things such as green lawns.

As rapid climate change continues to exacerbate droughts, should we consider transferring our water resources across long distances?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Glenn Thornton June 21, 2015 at 11:12 am - Reply

    It is time for this nation to have a conversation about water, and how we can get it from where it’s at to where it is need, the recent flood waters, in Texas and Oklahoma needn’t have run off and caused mass flooding, like wise, every year, there is place that get to much rain or mountain run off, so. let look at how we move oil and gas, we move it though pile lines, so lets pipe water from where it’s at to were it’s not, this will take a national commitment, but it’s not like we haven’t done it before, I live an area that befitted, from rural electrification, as a nation we put man on the mood, we can pretty well do what we decide we need to do, to time to start thinking about ways we can solve our nation water shortage. By Methods of storage and piping it. A national water system.

  2. Paul Looney May 29, 2015 at 11:30 am - Reply

    I agree with Dr. Jalil. Water conservation is the most necessary part of the entire US water system. We are treating wastewater to tertiary treatment levels and dumping it into rivers. This water should be reused. At least for landscape watering and eventually completely reused in a closed loop wastewater system. Groundwater recharge would be a happy benefit from the reuse for landscape watering using treated wastewater.

    We waste so much water in a single flush of a toilet it is a disgrace. Mankind needs to work hard and fast to recover used water rather than waste a limited freshwater or groundwater resource.

  3. Satish Choy May 25, 2015 at 6:11 am - Reply

    Water conservation through education, water use efficiency, water restriction, household rain water tanks, forward-thinking water planning and policy should be exhausted first before looking at alternative sources of water. These measures can reduce water usage by up to 50%, as was the case in the state of Queensland, Australia during their drought several years ago.

  4. Matthew Taylor May 23, 2015 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Shipping water (a.k.a. interbasin transfers) is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem. Water is heavy and moving it requires energy. The only way transferring water is cost-effective is when we have cheap energy – energy to power the shovels to bury the pipelines, energy to power the pumps to move the water. What makes the most sense is to use and conserve what you naturally have. At some point, it might make economic sense for California and other coastal states to desalinate seawater. But until then, much can still be done through conservation before we talk about new mega-projects to move water.

  5. Mike O'Brien May 20, 2015 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    This is a quandary not easy to solve. Living in northern Michigan within a couple hours drive of 3 Great Lakes and our little town of a couple thousand on Lake Michigan, water seems abundant.

  6. Tidal Tao May 19, 2015 at 10:17 am - Reply

    After all this, Obama gives conditional approval for Arctic Drilling. Don’t they see it all boils down to climate change and yet they still approve drilling and making the whole situation worse. If animals had a religion, they would think humans are the devil!

  7. Shinann Earnshaw May 17, 2015 at 10:35 am - Reply

    I grew up in Southern California–during wet years and during droughts. The idea of sending water to the south is a very old one, and a lot of water was being sent through canals in which the evaporation was intense. The problem now is exacerbated by climate change and the fact that water from Northern California is no longer available. Snow pack in Oregon mountains was low this year. Part of the problem is that agriculture has overdeveloped and big ag companies are only concerned with quantity. They have had it their own way for too many years. Now they are squealing. Also the population of arid regions has increased and underground aquifers are being depleted. And furthermore, the problems of big companies taking water to bottle and sell, often in Europe. There is a finite amount of water on the planet and most of it, of course, in the oceans.
    The solution I see is to cut the population, prevent further development and growth, and to learn to live with less–fewer strawberries in New York in January–encouraging more small farmers to grow and sell their products through community subscriptions (I know many people who get a weekly produce box by paying yearly to a farmer). No one is too big to fail. It is a matter of looking at the whole picture and seeing how methods of production can be modified, changed and improved to use less water and conserve that they have. I have seen boxes of lettuce in stores that are wilted and useless. If they grew less, this might not happen so often.

  8. Tim Hall May 15, 2015 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    Andre, Tulare Lake, was the largest lake west of the Mississippi and occupied what is now referred to in California as the Tulare Lake Basin. That is the area with the heaviest concentration of agriculture. It was most definitely not a desert. Ferries were required to get across the valley prior to unsustainable agriculture. Now after years of unsustainable agriculture groundwater has been depleted to such a degree that ground subsidence of over 150 feet has occurred in some areas. This has occurred despite the fact that massive quantities of water have been imported from the north state at taxpayer expense. California agriculture has been and still is out of control in using and abusing the vast majority of California’s water. This has been done even though agriculture because of its generally tax exempt status provides less than 3% of the state’s GDP. The desert region that is of major concern is in Kern County and known as the Westlands. By making huge political contributions to politicians, desert land purchased for next to nothing. provided by the taxpayer funded water has made corporate agricultural billionaires of Stewart and Linda Resnick, Borba and others. The water sent to this area was always under junior water rights which are rights to water that might be left over after all other senior water and environmental requirements have been met. It was generally assumed that no water would be available for approximately half of the years because of that fact. After four years of below average precipitation, based upon a 50 year average, but seemingly consistent with California’s 200 year average, property owners in this desert are once again politically active and have purchased the support of the state’s governor and his appointees. That is the sole reason for the governor’s proposed twin tunnels which will likely lead to the extinction of our entire river and groundwater recharge system. California’s agriculture needs to be downsized to sustainable levels. It is the only practical solution. Agriculture in the desert needs to return to its traditional dry land farming instead of the permanent crops that were planted based on the success of politically driven schemes.

  9. Bill Hoppes May 15, 2015 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    The papers in California have articles about a stronger than normal el Nino event leading to higher than normal rains from the “pineapple express” next winter. It will be a real test of the State’s people and political leadership to deal with California’s long term water use issues in the face of rain-induced flooding in Southern and Central California next winter.

  10. Brian Magee May 14, 2015 at 11:23 am - Reply

    High Candice, I want to know exactly how will the practice of using the water from the Great Lakes as a source for are water within the country be in the long term. Because I live in Cleveland, Ohio; and I know that by having so much the great lakes as a national resource can be beneficial in the short term. Could it ever have a negative consequences by causing the Great Lakes of the Midwest to become less and less of what it traditionally was within the years to come.

    • Candice Gaukel Andrews May 14, 2015 at 11:24 am - Reply


      I’m not sure if anyone knows what long-term effects shipping Great Lakes water to other areas of the country would have on the Great Lakes themselves. You might find this of interest, though: “The Great Lakes Water Conflict,” a website produced by geography students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire,

      Thanks for the comment.—C.G.A.

  11. Jessica Klein May 14, 2015 at 11:11 am - Reply

    A frightening thought indeed. One of the most detrimental consequences of such actions is that it could lessen concern over the effects of climate change. If a bandaid solution for effects of climate change are implemented it may make climate change seem less threatening.

    Another potential impact is the shifting of drought from one area to another. I was relieved when the alliance was formed between the states and provinces bordering the Great Lakes to have more control of the use and potential abuse of the Great Lakes water. However, if the need is great enough would all the states and provinces agree to ship water from the Great Lakes to drought ridden regions such as California. It is a possibility, and a terrifying one!

  12. Raymond Timm May 14, 2015 at 9:44 am - Reply

    I believe it was E.O. Wilson who observed that there is plenty of water in the desert for a desert ecosystem.

  13. Joseph Allen May 14, 2015 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Candice, Capturing every drop of H2O through a huge nation wide flood plan would secure our children’s future. Double the container deposit and reward every state that recycles with rebuilding infrastructure. Use recycled plastic pipe to capture the water; this could be the foundation for long term economic stability!

  14. David Hammant May 14, 2015 at 4:34 am - Reply

    Would be a fairly significant engineering and logistical problem. Is there any science explaining the drought? Any previous history of similar drought to look at?

    From memory when there in the ’80’s and ’90’s water was used prolifically, everyone had garden sprinklers, even the offices and the pathways. Maybe the population is simply using more water than there is available?

    • Candice Gaukel Andrews May 14, 2015 at 11:03 am - Reply

      Hi, David,

      Yes, there are scientific reports regarding the cause of the drought. According to Jeff Nesbit, the National Science Foundation’s director of legislative and public affairs in the Bush and Obama administrations, “Climate change is linked to California’s drought by two mechanisms: rising temperatures and changing atmospheric patterns conducive to diminishing rains. The first link is firmly established, and there is a considerable and growing body of evidence supporting the second.” (

      And in a Stanford University report published last September, “one of the most comprehensive studies to investigate the link between climate change and California’s ongoing drought,” it was stated that: “Our research finds that extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region – which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California – is much more likely to occur today than prior to the human emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s.” (

      As for population, you might be interested in this report ( regarding the state’s growth between 1980 and 2008: “California led in coastal population change, increasing by 9.9 million people, over twice the growth of any other state (with the exception of Florida).” (page 3)

      Thanks for the comment! —C.G.A.

  15. Andre Breberina May 14, 2015 at 4:32 am - Reply

    The productive area of California was originally mostly desert before eurpoean settlers arrived and became productive through artificial irrigation – effectively re-directing water to begin with. Then consider that much of what it exports out of state is water – just in the form of fruits and vegetables which can be as much as 90% water by weight.

    It would be a loss to California’s economy, but the article provides a basis for arguing in favour of local food production. It makes for less dependence on food from California and less of a need for California to eyeing water resources from far away.

  16. Sinnadurai Sripadmanaban May 14, 2015 at 4:28 am - Reply

    In every part of the world in every second, how much water is flowing to the sea? If we transport it to dry zones in each country, millions will be benefitted.

  17. Jalil S.M. May 13, 2015 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Water conservation technology appears to be prime consideration. This is a must for reducing any kind of loss or wastage of water.

  18. Saskiya Richards May 13, 2015 at 4:33 am - Reply

    Water use, globally, definitely needs to used more wisely, we need to just use what we essentially need.

  19. John H. Gaukel May 12, 2015 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    Believe it or not, the amount of water that is here on this earth now is the exact amount that was here when the earth was formed… is also the “SAME WATER”. Without clean water humans can’t survive!

    I wonder why we allow the practice of filling in marshes that filter the lakes and rivers? Fracking which uses millions of gallons of water for just one well is a huge waste of water. We must also learn to conserve water when we are in our homes.

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