Send Mississippi River water to southwestern reservoirs? New analysis casts doubts. (2023)

As an environmental scientist, Roger Viadero had to scratch his head over news reports last summer of the thirsty demand in Palm Springs and Las Vegas, among other western cities, for water from the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.

The letters pages of the Palm Springs Desert Sun newspaper broke their own records for online traffic last June with readers’ proposals to siphon some 22 billion gallons of water per day from the Midwest. To solve the Southwest’s water crisis, the desert denizens wrote, a series of canals and reservoirs could pipe water from the flood-prone Mississippi River to the Colorado River, a supposed win-win for everyone.

Aqueducts, pipelines and open channels pumping water from Minnesota and thereabouts to drier climates could easily do the trick, according to the letter writers. “We could fill Lake Powell in less than a year with an aqueduct from (the) Mississippi River,” wrote a reader. “It’s about will,” wrote another.

The proposals provoked Viadero, a skeptic and board-certified environmental engineer, to take up their feasibility with his students at Western Illinois University, where he chairs the environmental science doctorate program from the school’s Moline campus, located along the Mississippi River near the state’s Iowa border.

“The idea we have this abundance of water, it’s just a fantasy,” said Viadero, director of the university’s Institute for Environmental Studies, pointing to severe drought and low Midwestern water levels in an interview Monday.

“We sent astronauts to the moon,” he added. “We didn’t send the moon to us. People say all kinds of things about what they heard on Facebook. … We’re trying to give them some tools to help people make decisions.”

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‘PHYSICAL, ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL MAGNITUDE’

Send Mississippi River water to southwestern reservoirs? New analysis casts doubts. (1)

On Oct. 17, he and two doctoral students — E. Dave Thomas and Samuel Babatunde — released a 21-page technical analysis of the “physical, economic and environmental magnitude” of potentially diverting trillions of gallons of water from the Mississippi River to the lower Colorado River.

They presented their white paper two days later at the Upper Mississippi River Conference, which was held in Moline, and hope to have it peer-reviewed and published in an academic journal.

“We noticed a lack of information that can be used by the public to weigh the practical aspects of these proposals,” wrote the scientists. “This has created a void that’s being filled by proposals that lack realistic goals, violate a number of physical laws, and convey a poor understanding of scale, among other issues.”

Their findings, in a nutshell?

“Time, space, ecology, finances, and politics aren’t on the side” of water diverters, they wrote.

20 YEARS OF DROUGHT

The researchers noted there’s nothing hypothetical about the 20-plus years of drought that have plagued the Colorado River, which travels through seven U.S. states, provides drinking water for roughly 1-in-10 Americans and irrigates the vast majority of the nation’s winter vegetables.

Below Lake Powell in northern Arizona, the lower Colorado winds through Nevada, Arizona and California into Mexico, watering Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles and San Diego on its way.

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In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave the possibility of diverting Mississippi River water westward serious consideration, calling it at the time a potential 30-year project. The Arizona state legislature petitioned Congress in 2021 to revisit the idea, and on June 26, a letter in the Desert Sun went viral for suggesting using the river water to replenish Lake Powell, a reservoir in Utah and Arizona, as well as Lake Mead, another drought-stricken reservoir in Nevada and Arizona.

Together, the two reservoirs are about 27 percent full, or some 13 trillion gallons short of capacity, and sinking fast.

Still, the 2012 drought that hit both the upper and lower Mississippi River basins was even more severe — though less long-lasting — than the ongoing drought along the Colorado River basins, according to the scientists.

Drought conditions have continued to impact river communities from Minnesota on down through Tennessee and Mississippi. In the past few weeks alone, low water levels have clogged Mississippi River barge traffic, impacting both recreation and national commerce, including corn supplies.

“The severity of dry conditions has become worse over time,” the scientists wrote. “Given the length and geographic extent of these dry conditions, it is unlikely that this will abate under natural circumstances.”

21.6 BILLION GALLONS DAILY

Refilling Lake Mead and Lake Powell in less than two years, as Desert Sun readers suggested, would require moving 21.6 billion gallons of water per day — enough water to fill the Washington Monument 2,600 times daily.

Examining discharge rates by Vicksburg, Miss., the scientists found that diverting some 250,000 gallons of Mississippi River water per second would reduce the average downstream flow by roughly 8 percent, or by 5.6 percent during flooding conditions and by 17 percent compared to periods of low water discharge.

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The scientists scoffed at suggestions that would save taxpayers money by reducing the need to build and maintain flood levees and other infrastructure along the Mississippi River and its major tributaries. They noted that in 2019, the impact of flooding in the Midwest and southern plains was estimated at $20 billion in flood response, reconstruction and recovery, among other losses.

Even if the diverted river water was valued at just a penny per gallon, the cost to fill both lakes would total at least $134.8 billion, or 6.7 times the cost of the response to the basin-wide Mississippi River flooding three years ago.

And those totals do not include the added costs to acquire land, design and construct a conveyance system, treat the water and provide for annual operation and maintenance.

A LONG CHANNEL OR A BIG PIPE UPHILL

What kind of system could transport that much water? An open channel would have to be 100 feet wide and 61 feet deep, or 1,000 feet wide and 6 feet deep, stretching across a massive swathe of the U.S., according to the scientists.

That channel would span the width of an interstate highway, if not 10, and require heavy political buy-in from the cities and states along some 1,200 to 1,600 miles of future river highway. Construction would require some 1.9 billion yards of excavated material for the channel alone, not including its foundation.

Using a closed pipe instead of an open channel would result in a structure 88 feet in diameter — about the length across of 1 1/2 semi-trailers.

Then there’s the question of crossing the mountainous continental divide. The elevation difference between Lake Powell and the Old River Control Structure, the Mississippi River floodgate system in central Louisiana, is about 4,600 feet. The maximum elevation is 11,000 feet some 12 miles east of Santa Fe, New Mexico. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commands powerful pumps, “their lift capabilities are relatively low,” wrote the scientists.

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ADVERSE EFFECTS

The report also touched briefly upon questions beyond engineering, including the likelihood that invasive species such as silver and bighead carp could travel westward from the Midwest and its tributaries.

On average, the concentration of nitrogen in Mississippi River water is 6.8 times greater than the concentration in Lake Mead. At a rate of 250,000 gallons per second, some 69 million lbs. of nitrogen would be sent westward over the course of one and a half years, likely requiring costly added treatment.

While the scientists did not dwell on political considerations, they noted that a Colorado River Compact dating to 1922 divides water allocation by basin, not by state, further complicating political questions around water access.

Both the state of Minnesota and individual communities such as Dakota County have crafted laws against removing massive loads of groundwater for non-emergency, commercial and out-of-state use.

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Send Mississippi River water to southwestern reservoirs? New analysis casts doubts. (2)

FAQs

Can the West get water from the Mississippi? ›

It would be four times as long as the California Aqueduct and have to divert more than twice as much water. And, perhaps most challenging of all, it would have to overcome a net elevation difference of 3,700 feet, with peak elevations necessitating unfeasible power generation.

Can Arizona get water from the Mississippi River? ›

Any water diversion from the Mississippi to Arizona must be pumped about 6,000 feet up, over the Rockies. The diverted flow would require massive water tunnels, since a flow of 250,000 gallons/second exceeds the average flow of the Colorado River itself, rupturing standard pipe capacities. Aqueducts only work downhill.

Can water from the Mississippi be diverted to the Colorado River? ›

There is no way the states bordering the Mississippi River would allow for the diversion of water to the Colorado River.

How long would it take to build a pipeline from the Mississippi River to Lake Mead? ›

Engineers said the pipeline idea is technically feasible. But water experts said it would likely take at least 30 years to clear legal hurdles. And biologists and environmental attorneys said New Orleans and the Louisiana coast, along with the interior swamplands, need every drop of muddy Mississippi water.

Who gets drinking water from the Mississippi River? ›

In all, the Mississippi River and its almost 13-million-acre headwaters area provide drinking water for 2.5 million Minnesotans—more than 44% of the state's residents.

Why don't we build a water pipeline? ›

Why don't they build a water pipeline from states that have ... - YouTube

Is the Mississippi river going dry? ›

The Mississippi River is starting to run dry in many places. America's largest river is at all-time record low levels across much of the South due to worsening drought.

Is the Mississippi river water Toxic? ›

Stretches of the Mississippi River within the park corridor exceed water quality standards for mercury, bacteria, sediment, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), and nutrients. Unfortunately, these "impairments" can make the water unsuitable for fishing, swimming, and drinking.

Does the Mississippi river dump into the ocean? ›

The Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles (160 km) downstream from New Orleans. Measurements of the length of the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico vary somewhat, but the United States Geological Survey's number is 2,340 miles (3,770 km).

How much would a pipeline from the Mississippi River cost? ›

All three officials said the construction of a 45-mile Delta Water Project tunnel to keep supply flowing from the middle of the state to thirsty cities in the south is vital. That project, which also faces heavy headwinds from environmentalists, would cost an estimated $12 billion.

Will Lake Mead ever refill? ›

Lake Mead has a somewhat larger shortage, about 8 trillion gallons, but it could be filled in about 370 days at 250,000 gallons/sec.

Why does the Mississippi River not mix with the ocean? ›

No other North American river has a drainage basin as large as that of the Mississippi. The amount of nutrients it discharges into the Gulf of Mexico is correspondingly large. Because freshwater from the river is lighter than the salty seawater, it settles as a distinct layer above the seawater.

How far has a shark made it up the Mississippi River? ›

Bull sharks are euryhaline and can thrive in both salt and fresh water. They are known to travel far up rivers, and have been known to travel up the Mississippi River as far as Alton, Illinois, about 1,100 kilometres (700 mi) from the ocean, but few freshwater interactions with humans have been recorded.

How much does it cost to build a water pipeline? ›

How and where that pipeline might go is one thing, but the cost? Similar plans and construction in the 1950s were over $2 billion. Nowadays, any water pipeline could cost from $10 billion to $20 billion with another $30 billion in improvements just to get the water to thirsty people and farms.

How can we solve the West water Crisis? ›

What is your top solution for the water crisis?
  1. Education/Awareness.
  2. New Conservation Technologies.
  3. Recycle Wastewater.
  4. Improve Irrigation and Agriculture Water Use.
  5. Water Pricing.
  6. Energy Efficient Desal Plants.
  7. Rain Water Harvesting.
  8. Community Governance and Partnerships.

Why is the Mississippi River poisonous? ›

The Mississippi River is polluted

The Mississippi River is one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. This pollution is due to various factors, including agricultural runoff, sewage treatment plants, and industrial facilities. Agricultural runoff is any water that runs off of farmland.

Is Mississippi water safe to drink? ›

U.S. EPA Declares Jackson, Mississippi Water Safe to Drink.

Do people use the Mississippi River for drinking water? ›

The Mississippi River provides 23% of the nation's public surface water supplies. Eighteen million people depend on the Mississippi and its tributaries for drinking water.

Why do they not want the Keystone pipeline? ›

Environmentalists opposed the pipeline in part because of the oil it would carry — oil sands crude from Alberta. It requires more processing than most oil, so producing it emits more greenhouse gases.

Why shouldn't we build the Keystone pipeline? ›

Building the Keystone pipeline and opening up the Tar Sands will negatively impact national and local economies: Burning the recoverable tar sands oil will increase the earth's temperature by a minimum of 2 degree Celsius, which NYU Law School's Environmental Law Center estimates could permanently cut the US GDP by 2.5 ...

How long until Phoenix runs out of water? ›

Phoenix plans its water supply for 50 to 100 years into the future.

How long will it take to go down the Mississippi River? ›

How Long Does It Take To Travel The Mississippi River By Boat? The amount of time spent depends on the type of boat used. However, it can take as little as 14 days and up to 50 days. Non-power boats would take longer.

Why is the Mississippi River so dirty looking? ›

The Mississippi River carries roughly 500 million tons of sediment into the Gulf of Mexico each year. The Mississippi River is not the only river with the brownish hue. The color is due to the sediments like, fine particles of sand, silt, clay, along with other materials found in the water.

How long does it take water to go down the Mississippi River? ›

Mississippi River watershed or basin

In addition, the Mississippi is the third-longest river in the world, flowing 2,340 (3,770 km) miles from its source in Lake Itasca in northwestern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It takes three months for a drop of water to make this journey.

What is the cleanest river in the US? ›

1. San Marcos River in Texas. The San Marcos River is clear because it is fed by a freshwater spring. Not only is this water clear, but it is also extraordinarily clean.

Does the Mississippi river have water moccasins? ›

Others include: cottonmouth (water moccasin), copperhead, coral snake, pygmy rattlesnake, and eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Of these, the cottonmouth is the only venomous water snake, not only on the Mississippi River, but actually in all of North America.

What cities have forever chemicals in water? ›

Burlington, Davenport and Keokuk drinking water that goes to a combined total of more than 183,000 residents contains trace amounts of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”

How far up the Mississippi can ships go? ›

The Upper Mississippi River covers approximately half of the Mississippi River's length. About 850 miles (1,370 km) of the river is navigable from Minneapolis-St. Paul to the Ohio River.

What problems does the Mississippi River have? ›

Pollution and habitat loss make Mississippi River among nation's most endangered. Threatened with pollution from farms and cities, habitat loss and increased flooding due to climate change, the Mississippi River ranks among the nation's 10 most endangered waterways in 2022, a new report says.

Is there sand in the Mississippi River? ›

The Mississippi Section encompasses sand areas and dunes in the bottomlands of the Mississippi River and the "perched dunes" atop the bluffs near Hanover.

How much of the US is drained by the Mississippi River? ›

It drains 41 percent of the 48 contiguous states of the United States. The basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles, includes all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces, and roughly resembles a funnel which has its spout at the Gulf of Mexico.

How deep is a pipeline buried? ›

Most pipelines are typically buried at a depth of about 3 to 6 feet (0.91 to 1.83 m). To protect pipes from impact, abrasion, and corrosion, a variety of methods are used.

How deep is the water at pipeline? ›

First, it creates a series of reefs of successively deeper depths known as First Reef (200 feet offshore, 10-15 ft. waves; 2-8 ft deep), which is the main break, Second Reef (400 ft. offshore, 15-18 ft.

What happens if Lake Mead goes empty? ›

Such an event would have an enormous impact on San Diego County where half of the region's total water supply relies on the Colorado River. Other areas of the Southwest could also be severely affected. Regional agricultural use of water could be eliminated, impacting the nation's food supply.

How long before Lake Mead runs out of water? ›

The last 20 years suggest that Lake Mead and Lake Powell will be unlikely to refill once they drain. We've had more than twice the number of years where the Colorado River flowed less than 10 million acre-feet since 2000 than we did in the last century, according to data presented by climate researcher Brad Udall.

What year will Lake Mead run out of water? ›

A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change indicates the drought, which could persist until 2030, has been made approximately 40 percent worse by the effects of the warming planet.

Does the Mississippi ever flow the wrong way? ›

Some rivers that have changed for natural reasons include the Amazon and the Mississippi, bringing them into the group of many rivers that have switched direction (and sometimes switched again).

How does the Mississippi never run out of water? ›

Why do rivers continue to flow, even when little or no rain has fallen? Much of the water feeding a stream runs slowly underground through shallow aquifers. These sediments are saturated like natural sponges and respond slowly to rainfall and drought.

Is the Mississippi River natural or man made? ›

Although the river was created naturally as we have explained, humans have modified and tampered with it in many ways. A natural river is a natural watercourse that flows towards a sea, a lake, an ocean, or another river.

Do sharks swim up the Mississippi river? ›

Bull sharks have been known to occasionally leave their habitats in the Gulf of Mexico and swim upstream in the Mississippi River.

Do sharks swim in the Mississippi river? ›

The short answer is yes. Over the last century, researchers have documented at least two bull shark sightings in the Mississippi River. One in Alton, Illinois, in 1937, and another in Saint Louis, Missouri, near Rush Island Power Station in 1995; both are exceptionally rare.

Does the Mississippi river have alligators? ›

Once considered an endangered species in the late 1960s, American Alligators have made a big comeback in the swampy marsh areas surrounding the Mississippi River. It is estimated that there are just over 30,000 alligators in Mississippi, with most centralized in the southern portion of the state.

Where is the longest water pipeline in the world? ›

The Great Man-Made River (GMMR, النهر الصناعي العظيم) is a network of pipes that supplies fresh water obtained from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System fossil aquifer across Libya. It is the world's largest irrigation project.

How long does it take to dig a water line? ›

On average, you're looking at about 12 hours to dig 100 linear feet. Your actual work time will come down to how many twists and turns there are when digging.

How long does it take for a pipeline to be built? ›

Pipelines cannot be constructed overnight, and the entire construction process can take up to 18 months. A pipeline construction project looks much like a moving assembly line. A large pipeline project typically is broken into manageable lengths called “spreads” and utilizes qualified contractors.

How can we be ready for the problem of water shortage? ›

Amazing Solutions to Water Scarcity
  1. Save Water Whenever Possible. ...
  2. Education. ...
  3. Recycle Water. ...
  4. Advanced Technology Related to Water Conservation. ...
  5. Improve Practices Related to Farming. ...
  6. Less Use of Chemicals in Farming. ...
  7. Improve Sewage Systems. ...
  8. Better Water Distribution Infrastructure.

What states have no drought? ›

An area of exceptional drought spans the state of Georgia. All of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, and Indiana are in drought. Drought and/or abnormally dry conditions affect some or all of most states—only Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine have been spared.

What can the government do to solve water crisis? ›

'By reducing per capita consumption in the municipal sector, increasing the amount of wastewater that is treated and returned to the system, using groundwater more in agriculture, and moving away from coal-fired power plants, the country can bring its water sector back into balance.

› watch ›

As Arizona's drought gets worse, some lawmakers are looking to draw water from the Mississippi River. But not everyone is on board with that idea.
In today's video we begin by reviewing the current water level at Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam. The water elevation at Lake Mead conti...
A meme showing a stretch of ocean with brown water on one side, sharply distinct from blue water on the other, has been widely shared on Facebook in Kenya. The ...

Where does the West get its water? ›

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which is created by the Glen Canyon Dam, not only provide water and electricity to tens of millions in Nevada, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Mexico, but they also provide irrigation water for agriculture.

Can we pipe water to the west? ›

You would have to build a system that not only pipes water the 1000 miles, but also build a system that is capable of piping water up about a mile in elevation. Piping it would have such a high energy cost it simply would not be worth it. Politically this would also be a nightmare.

Where do Western states get water? ›

Lake Mead supplies water to millions of people in Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico. Cuts for 2023 are triggered when predicted water levels fall below a certain threshold — 1,050 feet (320 meters) above sea level.

Where does the West Coast get its water? ›

California receives 75 percent of its rain and snow in the watersheds north of Sacramento. However, 80 percent of California's water demand comes from the southern 2/3 of the state.

How long before Arizona runs out of water? ›

The state enters an era of relentless decline. By 2060, according to several published projections, extreme heat and water scarcity could make Phoenix one of the continent's most uninhabitable places.

What states have no drought? ›

An area of exceptional drought spans the state of Georgia. All of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, and Indiana are in drought. Drought and/or abnormally dry conditions affect some or all of most states—only Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine have been spared.

Will Lake Mead eventually dry up? ›

Lake Mead is projected to get down to 22 percent of its full capacity by year's end, while Lake Powell is expected to drop to 27 percent, according to estimations from the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Is the Mississippi river going dry? ›

The Mississippi River is starting to run dry in many places. America's largest river is at all-time record low levels across much of the South due to worsening drought.

What did they find at the bottom of Lake Mead? ›

The National Park Service, which manages the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, said in a news release that around 3 p.m. rangers found a barrel containing human remains in Hemenway Harbor, a section of lake where a local family claims to operate the largest private marina in the United States.

How much does a mile of water pipeline cost? ›

Theoretically, the cost to build a transnational water pipeline isn't outrageously expensive. A large diameter water pipeline costs about $2 million per mile to build. So a water pipeline from Boston to Los Angeles, a distance of 2,600 miles, would cost about $5.2 billion to build.

What state has the best water resources? ›

States with the Best Tap Water in the US
  • Oregon.
  • Kansas.
  • Minnesota.
  • Massachusetts.
  • South Dakota.
  • Missouri.
  • Connecticut.
  • Rhode Island.

Will Southwest drought end? ›

A new study in Nature Climate Change shows that Earth's warming climate has made the western drought about 40 percent more severe, making it the region's driest stretch since A.D. 800. And there's a very strong chance the drought will continue through 2030.

Which states running out of water? ›

The 7 States That Are Running Out Of Water

The drought in California is something we've spoken about in previous articles, but it's important to understand that California is only one of a handful of states running out of water. These states include: Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico and Nevada as well.

What state has the most drinking water? ›

Hawaii ranks No. 1 for drinking water quality and No. 2 for urban air quality, leading to its top spot in the natural environment category. Learn more about Hawaii.

Is San Diego going to run out of water? ›

As a result, the water agency that serves 24 water utilities including the city of San Diego says it can avoid cuts until at least 2045, even during dry periods.

What state has the most water? ›

Alaska has the most water

The state with the largest total area of water is Alaska, which has 94,743 square miles of water. Alaska contains approximately 12,000 rivers, 3 million lakes larger than 5 acres, and numerous creeks and ponds, accounting for more than 14% of the state's total area.

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