Fixing America – Idea 28 – Solving the Western States’ Water Shortage Problems

By March 13th, 2023

Blog No. 163 
March 14, 2023

Fixing America – Idea 28 

By Mack W. Borgen
University of California at Berkeley (Honors, Economics); Harvard Law School; National Award-Winning Author. 

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“Fixing America” Series of Articles

Over the last three years, I have presented a wide range of ideas for “resetting” and “fixing” America. This blog presents Idea 28 in this “Fixing America” series of articles.

Two Solutions

to the Western States’ Drought and Water Shortage Problem

Special Preamble 

In the sense of weird timing, it is strange that as I write this article about the severe drought and water shortage problem in the Western and Southwestern states, most of the reservoirs of California are once again, for now, full.  In fact, there are – of all things – “atmospheric rivers” of water flooding Central California, and there is a massive snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. However, while this “Pineapple Express” temporarily will relieve some of the drought conditions, nothing has changed the forecast of long-term drought. Nothing has changed the anticipated and long-term effects of climate change. To think otherwise is to ignore the reality of the slow-moving hurricane of global warming in which we find ourselves. Obviously and except for the inevitable flooding which will occur this week, I am pleased that California has received its brief reprieve. But the drought is coming back. Unavoidably and inevitably. The real impact of this year’s wet winter is that we may now have time to implement what is described in this article.   


I do not have a PhD in hydrology, and I have never been that good at understanding “engineering” matters. But I do have a B.A. in Logic. And we are all pretty good at basic math – you know, the 2+2 = 4 type. So why can’t America take the two steps described in this article to greatly help, if not totally solve, its water shortage problem?

Some Historical Background and Perspective

In 1973, work began on the Alaska Pipeline. When it was mostly completed four years later, in 1977, it was 48” in diameter and 800 miles long. It had 11 pump stations and several hundred more miles of feeder pipelines. When fully operational, it transported 2.1MM barrels of oil a day across some of the roughest, most severe, and isolated terrain in America – from Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope to Valdez on the shores of Prince William Sound. As of 2015, 17BB barrels of oil had flowed through the Alaska Pipeline for America’s and the world’s use.

Personal Note: As a young man, I had several friends who thought about heading north to work on the pipeline. Their plan was to work hard for a couple of years; make some big wages; and then come home, retire, and relax for the rest of their lives. It never worked out that way though. Beer and brothels got in the way of their money, and the endlessly severe cold froze a lot of their dreams. But those are another set of stories.

About 35 years later, the Keystone Pipeline now crosses parts of Canada and the lower 48 states. The 36” pipeline was commissioned in 2010 to transport oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Illinois and Texas and to oil tank farms in Oklahoma. It is 2,687 miles long, and although it has been the subject of many environmental and pollical disputes, it is slowly getting done.

There are two common themes of both pipelines – the Alaska Pipeline and the Keystone Pipeline. First, they both carry oil – which can be toxic and harmful in the event of a spill. Second, they both cross many miles of hostile and mountainous terrains.

But some parts of America – especially Southwest America – has other non-oil needs. You know, water! Most of the water used in Southwest America comes from the Colorado Watershed which flows 1,450 miles. The Colorado River and Watershed provide water to seven (7) states including California and Arizona. California, by itself, gets 4.4MM acre feet of water every year from the Colorado River which provides enough water for about 13.0MM Southern California households. But, for years, the Colorado River water table has been getting lower while the need for water has continued to rise. In fact, it is now projected that Lake Mead will be entirely out of water in 10-15 years. The same is true of many reservoirs n California – think Lake Shasta and the Oroville Dam.

Worse yet, the demand for water continues to grow as the populations of, for example, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, continue to increase.

One other critical item should be noted. Although there is a powerful tendency to think of growing water demands in terms of population growth, 80% of all of California’s water is used in agriculture. Thus, only a relatively “small” amount goes to household usage.

So, are there solutions? Yes. Why are they not being discussed?

Two Solutions – Challenging, But Obvious

Solution No. 1.

A Water Pipeline.

There are seven (7) components to this water pipeline solution.

First, if we can build the 800-mile Alaska Pipeline and the 2,687 Keystone Pipelines for oil, then why can’t we build a pipeline for water from the “rain and snow” states of the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies.

Second, most years (though admittedly every year) the Pacific Northern and Northern Rocky Mountain states have an abundance of water some of which could (easily) be diverted. Rather than allowing the water to flow into the Pacific Ocean, the excess water could be re-routed through a water pipeline to the American Southwest. In those years – and there will be some – when the rain or snowfall is less, then less water will be sent through the pipeline. In those years – and there will be some – when it has been a wet spring or a heavy winter, then the water can road its way down to the Colorado Watershed and Lake Mead (and through water feeder pipelines to Lake Shasta and Oroville Dam and on and on).

Third, because it is “friendly” water rather than “toxic” oil, many of the environmental and other spillage concerns are almost definitionally minimized.

Fourth, because the water could be piped directly into the Colorado Watershed or established water reservoirs, no new filtration and water purification stations do not need to be built.

Fifth, compared to the terrain and severe weather challenges of building the Alaska Pipeline, building a water pipeline across, for example, Nevada, would be relatively easy.

Sixth, much of the water pipeline could be built across “federal land” states. 63% of Nevada, for example, is already federal land. Similarly, 53% of Oregon is federal land. As a result, the number of land or easement acquisitions will be far less.

Seventh, to the extent it is necessary to transverse private land and because it is water (not oil), many farms and farming communities would welcome easement or inverse condemnation payments – not a lot of land buyer prospects 14 miles outside of Ely, Nevada or past the Resume Speed sign in John Day, Oregon. Personal Note: My family has lived in many parts of Montana, and I know that there are, for example, a lot of farmers and communities (especially up on the Hi-Line of Highway 2 or in the Big Open of Central Montana) that might welcome the easement or inverse condemnation payments of $X – say, $10,000 or maybe some formula — say $Y per linear foot of pipeline. Have at it!

Solution 2.

More Regulation of Permitted Crops and Livestock.

However, even if we get the water through the new pipeline, it is important to focus more upon how we use the water. This leads to Solution 2.

Because (a) there is a continuing water shortage, and (b) because 80% of California’s water is used for agriculture, it is necessary for there to be enhanced regulations relating both to livestock and to the types of crops which can be planted in California.

Almonds, for example, have historically (and somewhat erroneously) taken the biggest water-usage critique (1-3 gallons for every almond plus shell and hue), but regardless of the accuracy of the almonds story, there is no doubt that livestock and some crops use substantially more water than other items. The per unit water usage needs to be closely examined. As necessary, enhanced regulations must be adopted to control the types of crops which are grown or the number of livestock which are allowed to graze in California’s Central Valley.

At first blush, this may seem highly intrusive. And it is. However, every day more and more households in America’s Southwest are being restricted on their watering and water usage. Some (needed) housing developments have been shelved due to water concerns, and the cost of water itself is soaring everywhere. Furthermore, if crop and livestock regulations are not enhanced (along with the water pipeline discussed above), then the severity of residential water usage will get (much) worse.


Could I humbly suggest that America “get on this.” I do not under-estimate the many Herculean engineering and construction challenges — pipeline design, pumping stations, water temperature issues, and on and on. Indeed, there are many technical, engineering, and logistical issues which will need to be addressed. But with patience and effort, they can be resolved. We went to the moon. We split the atom. We can build a water pipeline….especially when the long-term habitability of Southwestern States and the very fertility of California’s Central Valley are at stake.

Regrettably, there also will be a lot of political pushing and shoving. A lot of these details will have to be worked out as well, but (a) many construction and pipeline maintenance jobs will be created, and (b) the pipeline could assure the continued safety and growth of our Western states.

Done thoughtfully, many Americans could “win.” Marginal regulations and praying for another “wet winter” will not solve the problem. So, let us start the planning and construction now.

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Copyright 2023 by Mack W. Borgen. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews, without prior written permission by the author.




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