With drought on my mind, it was interesting to come across two new articles in The New York Times today, both about the United States of waterlessness.

The less interesting of the two tells us that "[w]ater levels in the Great Lakes are falling; Lake Ontario, for example, is about seven inches below where it was a year ago" – and, "for every inch of water that the lakes lose, the ships that ferry bulk materials across them must lighten their loads... or risk running aground."

[Image: The Great Lakes are draining; photo by James Rajotte for The New York Times].

What's causing this? "Most environmental researchers," we read, "say that low precipitation, mild winters and high evaporation, due largely to a lack of heavy ice covers to shield cold lake waters from the warmer air above, are depleting the lakes."

I'm reminded of something Alex Trevi sent me several weeks ago, in which writer and comedian Garrison Keillor speculates as to what might happen if the state of Minnesota sold all the water in Lake Superior.

Keillor describes a fantastical project called Excelsior, in which the Governor of Minnesota "will stand on a platform in Duluth and pull a golden lanyard, opening the gates of the Superior Diversion Canal, a concrete waterway the size of the Suez. Water from Lake Superior will flood into the canal at a rate of 50 billion gal. per hour and go south."
    It will flow into the St. Croix River, to the Mississippi, south to an aqueduct at Keokuk, Iowa, and from there west to the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon and many other southwestern canyons, filling them up to the rims – enough water to supply the parched Southwest from Los Angeles to Santa Fe for more than 50 years.
The drained landscape left behind will be renamed the Superior Canyon – and the Superior Canyon, Keillor says, will put the Grand Canyon to shame. "It's bigger, for one thing," he writes, "plus it has islands and sites of famous shipwrecks. You'll have a monorail tour of the sites with crumpled hulls of ships. Very respectful."

By 2006, Keillor speculated (he was writing from the Hootie & the Blowfish-filled year of 1995):
    Lake Superior will be gone, and its islands will be wooded buttes rising above the fertile coulees of the basin. A river will run through it, the Riviera River, and great glittering casinos like the Corn Palace, the Voyageur, the Big Kawishiwi, the Tamarack Sands, the Clair de Loon, the Sileaux, the Garage Mahal, the Glacial Sands, the Temple of Denture, the Golden Mukooda will lie across the basin like diamonds in a dish. Family-style casinos, with theme parks and sensational water rides on the rivers cascading over the north rim, plus high-rise hotels and time-share condominiums. Currently there are no building restrictions in Lake Superior; developers will be free to create high-rises in the shape of grain elevators, casinos shaped like casserole dishes, accordions, automatic washers. Celebrities will flock to the canyon. You'll see guys on the Letterman show who, when Dave asks, "Where you going next month, pal?" will say, "I'll be in Minnesota, Dave, playing four weeks at the Pokegama." Tourism will jump 1,000%. Guys on the red-eye from L.A. to New York will look out and see a blaze of light off the left wing and ask the flight attendant, "What's that?" And she'll say, "Minnesota, of course."
All of which actually reminds of Lebbeus Woods, and his vision of a drained Manhattan.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan; view larger].

But perhaps such a willfully fictive reference overlooks the reality of the drought(s) now creeping up on the United States.

In a massive new article published this weekend in The New York Times, we're given a long and rather alarming look at the lack of water in the American west, focusing on the decline of the Colorado River.
    A catastrophic reduction in the flow of the Colorado River – which mostly consists of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains – has always served as a kind of thought experiment for water engineers, a risk situation from the outer edge of their practical imaginations. Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government.
And it will happen; this "unfathomable" situation will someday occur. The American West will run out of water.

[Image: Simon Norfolk, a photographer previously interviewed by BLDGBLOG, taken for The New York Times].

Or will it?

At one point in his genuinely brilliant book Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner describes something called N.A.W.A.P.A.: the North American Water and Power Alliance. N.A.W.A.P.A. is nothing less than the gonzo hydrological fantasy project of a particular group of U.S. water engineers. N.A.W.A.P.A., Reisner tells us, would "solve at one stroke all the West's problems with water" – but it would also take "a $6-trillion economy" to pay for it, and "it might require taking Canada by force."

He quips that British Columbia "is to water what Russia is to land," and so N.A.W.A.P.A., if realized, would tap those unexploited natural waterways and bring them down south to fill the cups of Uncle Sam. Canadians, we read, "have viewed all of this with a mixture of horror, amusement, and avarice" – but what exactly is "all of this"?

    Visualize, then, a series of towering dams in the deep river canyons of British Columbia – dams that are 800, 1,500, even 1,700 feet high. Visualize reservoirs backing up behind them for hundreds of miles – reservoirs among which Lake Mead would be merely regulation-size. Visualize the flow of the Susitna River, the Copper, the Tanana, and the upper Yukon running in reverse, pushed through the Saint Elias Mountains by million-horsepower pumps, then dumped into nature's second-largest natural reservoir, the Rocky Mountain Trench. Humbled only by the Great Rift Valley of Africa, the trench would serve as the continent's hydrologic switching yard, storing 400 million acre-feet of water in a reservoir 500 miles long.
And that's barely half the project!

The project would ultimately make "the Mojave Desert green," we read, diverting Canada's fresh water south to the faucets of greater Los Angeles – thus destroying almost every salmon fishery between Anchorage and Vancouver, and even "rais[ing] the level of all five [Great Lakes]," in the process.

After all, N.A.W.A.P.A. also means that the Great Lakes would be connected to the center of the North American continent by something called the Canadian–Great Lakes Waterway.

But N.A.W.A.P.A. is an old plan; it's been gathering dust since the 1980s. No one now is seriously considering building it. It's literally history.

But who knows – perhaps 2008 is the year N.A.W.A.P.A. makes a comeback. Or, perhaps, in January 2010, after another dry winter, Los Angeles voters will start to get thirsty. Perhaps some well-positioned Senators, in 2011, might even start making phonecalls north. Perhaps, in 2012, some recent graduates from water management programs at state-funded universities in Illinois or Utah might catch the itch of moral rebellion; they might then start redrawing their personal maps of the continent, going to bed at night with visions of massive dams in their heads, writing position papers for peer-reviewed hydrological engineering magazines.

Perhaps, in 2017, ten years from now, BLDGBLOG – if it's still around – will even be reporting from the rims of these gigantic structures, thrown up overnight in the remote and untrafficked darkness of riverine western Canada. Long, perfectly calibrated concrete sluices and pumps will bring water thousands of miles south through redwood forests to the open basins of California's reservoirs, and photographs of their incomprehensibly expensive and exactly poured geometry will elicit whistles of embarrassed awe from readers on the streets of Weehawken.

[Image: A fish-cleaning station in Las Vegas Bay, now abandoned by the West's sinking waters; taken by Simon Norfolk for The New York Times].

Or perhaps it won't be N.A.W.A.P.A. after all, but some titanic new project identical in all but name.

Will California wait for the coming drought to destroy it – or will the state take drastic measures?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I’m all for dreaming up hypothetical landscapes, but hopefully a belief in such engineered solutions have passed us by for good. Solutions can be found without such drastic measures – the fact that North Americans have such a ridiculous water consumption rate is a good place to start. And Australia, a continent that is chronically short of water, has managed to come up with less dramatic, but more resourceful ideas to keep themselves hydrated. We’ve created the need, and thus, the problem. Like most of our problems, perhaps the real solution lies in the adjustment of our complacent lifestyle as opposed to formulating a new landscape ecosystem to suit it.

October 23, 2007 9:59 AM  
Blogger BrydenBlog said...

If Americans think that our oil and gas is expensive, just wait 'till they see what our water will cost them! Please bring your buckets and form a queue to the right.
Of course we will do anything we can to help out our continental brethren, which includes Mexico, but we will first endure adequate supplies of water for internal use, and then seek fair compensation for what can be sold. Perhaps a "Water Futures Market" might be in order where speculators could by forward contracts of water supplies.
Alternatively, if you live in a desert, stop trying to turn the landscape into something that it’s not! Someday ewe will learn that water is more precious that fossil fuels, unfortunately by then we will all be dying of thirst.

October 23, 2007 11:10 AM  
Blogger QT said...

When you write about drained large bodies of waters, it reminds me of a Philip K. Dick novel - The Man in the High Castle. In the story, the Mediterranean Sea is drained by the Germans for additional agricultural land...water is life!

October 23, 2007 1:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I think I would rather see the American West dry up and die than see enacted such a disgustingly destructive and exploitative plan as the one outlined.

Of course, such a plan also supposes that the US maintains an over-inflated position of power in the world, and that its runaway economy remains unchained (and we're already beginning to see that occur).

October 23, 2007 3:13 PM  
Blogger LOTUSVILLE said...

Want to help save water? Stop eating meat.

Thanks for the post. I've been obsessing about our historic Southern California drought for a while here.

October 24, 2007 2:10 AM  
Blogger HomerTheBrave said...

When I read this, I can only think of two things:

1) The NAFTA Superhighway. Even though it doesn't exist, it lives in that same subliminal space just outside political practicality.... at the moment.

2) Owens valley. NAWAPA would be v.2.0 of the Owens valley aqueduct, which steals the snow from the top of Mt. Whitney and allows Hollywood movie moguls to keep their desert lawns green.

October 24, 2007 2:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someday, Geoff, I will see your byline in the NYT book review. Thanks for the review of Cadillac Desert, which I've owned for a while now but am just starting to read.
We would, I hope, learn much more about water effeciency and desalination before going this route.
I'm going to get a reputation as a sick optimist if I keep posting on this blog.

October 24, 2007 2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's already an international agreement on the natural resource that is the great lakes. There is only only place great lakes water can leave its watershed, and that's through the Chicago River. Even now people are starting to discuss plans that will turn the river back around and return it to its natural course of feeding Lake Michigan. Obliviously, the NAWAPA engineers will be attempting to not only take over Canada, but all of the Northern Midwest and New York who have a tendency to look upon the west coasters as self-centered lightweights who can't hack a little nip in the air. If you want a lawn of luxurious green grass there's a lot of places you can move to - unfortunately there's no more of them in California and the Southwest.

October 29, 2007 3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's wrong with desalination? Saudi Arabia and China have success with this method.

November 04, 2007 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

seawater to fresh water would be best correct. However if you all think the US wont do what it must to spark jobs, energy, and water are totally blind. What happened during the great depression? Hoover Dam read about it. Jobs, energy, and water. Watch and see what happens. Canada, Mexico, and the US benefit from NAWAPA if you read the report. The snow caps are melting boys and girls and the fresh water is just going to where? The ocean I forgot and it rises and the world suffers. Sure blame the US for that too though we did it all on our own. Hydrogen is the way of the future too in cars. check it out sometime as it is a reality in 3 counties in California. Watch out middle east keep the oil to drink! Then ethanol from corn? What a joke! 1 acre of corn produces around 250 gallons of ethanol a year. Sawgrass grown on the same 1 acre of land produces 4 times the amount of ethanol in comparison. However one distinct difference.... It can be harvested twice a year! That means what folks? 8 times as much ethanol and it needs little water. That then lowers food costs. Watch and see, I hope I am wrong but remember this post.

Not to mention the agriculture spawned by this what would we do with all that food that could be grown? Oh yeah that place called China, I think they consume a bit of food correct? Jobs, energy, food, water, lower sea levels, ah yes it is finally clear, avoid the recession in class and keep North America as a whole the world leader period. We got it all and together could solve many of the worlds problems without a single gun shot.

February 27, 2008 11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just the Americans that are in on NAWAPA. In the 1960's, I was in a BC Hydro office and on the wall was a huge map showing all the dams, reservoirs, tunnels and canals that would be needed to bring about the necessary diversions of this water. Since BC Hydro is an entity of the British Columbia government, I wonder what part they play in it too?

May 13, 2008 6:37 PM  
Blogger hahajohnnyb said...

Wow, just wow. The first poster seems to think that Americans are wasting water. What do you think the biggest user of water is? Green lawns, people drinking water, bathing or using the toilet, or maybe agriculture?

If you guessed agriculture, you would be right! Given that we export food, and the world is still hungry, what would you guess would happen when US ag production decreases? What would you figure would happen to World Food Prices? What would you figure would happen to the really poor people in Africa, when Americans start to go hungry?

Is growing food and feeding people a waste of a resource? Are you freakin' kidding me?

Now that being said, I personally think that western Canada is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but if is could be possible to harvest some of that water to insure the future food supply with minimal ecological impact, then why not? Yeah, I'm sure that a few things would change in BC, but so long as the change is not dramatic then it is a reasonable compromise between ecology and human needs. If it would be a huge ecological disaster, then I think that their are other ways to meet our water needs.

June 22, 2008 1:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole problem with NAWAPA is that the same climatic changes which will ultimately dry up the USA southwest is also acting in western Canada. The glaciers which provide so much of the water supply in the great plains, are melting. So by the time the trillions are ready to be spenty on NAWAPA's grand scheme, there won't be any water left to divert south. Cities like Calgary, Alberta, are already wondering what will happen when their Rocky Mountain water supply dries up.
And isn't it ironic that desertfication is happening at the same time as global sea levels are rising?

August 07, 2008 7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is like a bad dream coming back to haunt me. I grew up in Prince George, BC which is located in the Rocky Mountain Trench (at the convergence of the Northern and Southern sections of the trench) and I remember this issue when I was a teenager in the 80's. I remember my family receiving a letter or pamphlet in the mail from a local politician talking about the flooding of the Rocky Mountain Trench to provide water for thirsty folks down in California. I was horrified by the idea and the time and it haunts me to this day to think that this project could become a reality. During my search of websites concerning this project, I have not seen one that mentions the displacement of cities and towns of people living in the trench. From what I understand about the project (correct me if I'm wrong), my hometown and others would end up underwater and the residents would be forced to move. Not exactly the same scale as the Three Gorges Dam in China, but you get the idea. Why should some people have to lose their homes so that other folks can carry on life as usual on the edge of an arid desert? Not only would this project have a huge environmental impact, but a lot folks would lose out on the deal as well. When I was a teenager, our local politicians were looking out for our best interests, but I'm not sure if they are now.

November 04, 2008 11:29 PM  
Blogger neil craig said...

What cities are there in the trench which would have to move? There may be a few villages/small towns but this would benefit 10s of millions of people. Unless you are 100% native American your ancestors were willing to move to get a better living.

November 18, 2008 7:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all I would like to say that the author takes several of Reisner's words out of context. When Reisner mentioned taking Canada by force this was not a serious suggestion by any means. However, in your blog you made it sound like Reisner would do anything (including taking Canada by force)which is not the impression that I got from the book.

In fact, I recieved exactly the opposite impression from Risner. My impression of the book was that he condemed the water projects all together, and i feel that his ideal soulution would have been to not try and conquer the desert, or semi-desert, called the American West.

The conversation throughout the book was of great sorrow and contempt for the people in charge of these American water projects. When the book has chapter titles such as "A Country of Illusion," "Things Fall Apart" (which is actually a reference to a Chinua Achebe novel sharing the same title), "Rivals in Crime," and "Those Who Refuse to Learn..." the message seems to be more condemning than praising the same kind of projects that helped us get into this mess in the first place. I fear you are agreeing to someone who does not agree with you.

June 01, 2010 1:07 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Anonymous (on May 31), Reisner is overwhelmingly opposed to NAWAPA, as his text makes extraordinarily clear. I also think that it is a terrible idea—but its scale, about which I comment in this post, above, is breathtaking, no matter how disastrous its implementation would be. This post isn't "praising" NAWAPA.

June 01, 2010 6:59 AM  
Anonymous Vernon Notsky said...

NAWAPA lives!

Almost all of the comments on this post are terribly uninformed about the project, however. There is a detailed discussion, and 3D fly-through of the entire project, with narration, here: A Short Tour of NAWAPA

After you watch that, there is an interactive, Google Earth version, which has lower resolution, but you can click on all of the dams, tunnels, reservoirs, and canals (in many cases, the largest ever built in human history) for more detailed specs. We'll be adding a bunch of new material in the coming weeks, most significant among which will be the rail map and new cities to be built in the U.S. and Canada. The new rail and cities will be necessary to even maintain the project, and from the hydroelectric power alone it will generate more than enough electricity for Canada to provide for the expansion. More importantly, though, the new technological capability and population centers in Alaska will make possible the Bering Strait bridge/tunnel project, which will make the cities in B.C. (which will lie on the rail route from Capetown to Buenos Aires) some of the most prosperous on the planet. (As it stands, almost none of the population of B.C. is located within the Rocky Mountain trench, and those few that are will get the greatest benefit from the new developments.)

Even more detailed tours can be found here.

And further scientific, political, and economic implications are available here.

If anyone wants the more detailed specs, I can provide them, as well as the details of sister projects for Central Asia, Africa, and Mexico, which we'll be able to take up once we develop the expertise by building NAWAPA. This will open the door to finally undoing the damage that has been done to Africa in the last centuries, and will have the exciting consequence of being a test-run for full-scale terraforming projects on Mars and elsewhere. Let's build this! It's waiting for you to help. :) Put yourself on the email feed for further updates.


September 08, 2010 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

27 gigawatts to pump water out of Idaho into the system. at 5 billion per nuclear reactor that is 35 billion for that power alone. this project will be way to expensive. seems every step of the way will require massive dams and extreme tunnels.

May 16, 2011 10:29 PM  
Blogger Steven Believin' said...

We need to build this! For our urgent water needs emphatically but more importantly for moral stimulation and a restoration of self confidence in a whole generation of kids who are unemployed, demoralized and most often on drugs and in gangs. I only read the most likely extinct commenter at the top and to him say: you may be advocating the imperial brainwashing scheme of population reduction. Humans are a great life form and can transform continents to become more productive than the irrational nature made them and we must! It would have been a mistake for "Mother Nature" to make a species with a mind to move mountains who just sits around and sings coombiya trying desperately to fight the evolutionary current of progress.

This project could bring about a whole new field of knowledge from understanding fluctuating weather patterns to biospheric engineering, where we can begin to terraform deserts and grow food for a starving human race. We must make the shift to become the leaders of the universe and get out of this oligarchical culture of death.

I have done a lot of research on this project and have found that it is covered best on this website. check it out and go on some guided tours of the different pump lifts and dams that would be created.


September 29, 2011 6:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You think Asian Carp and Zebra Mussels are a problem now? Imagine when they and other biological invaders spread across the entire continent. An easier, more environmentally-sound, and cheaper solution to the demands for power and water is conservation and investment in greater efficiency.

December 09, 2013 12:33 AM  
Anonymous Eric Hirtle said...

With the proper leadership, this project can be completed. It will make the land more productive. Mostly, this project will use our human powers of reason to overcome a culture of pessimism and death.

January 29, 2015 1:47 PM  

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