Should the United States build a national water system


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We’re reintroducing the “It’s Debatable” segment and welcoming new debate partner Amy Hardberger, who is McCleskey Professor at the Texas Tech School of Law and Director of the Center for Water Law and Policy. She joins Charles Moster, founder of the Lubbock-based law firm Moster with seven offices including Austin, Dallas and Houston. Today, they are debating whether the United States should build a massive national water system to alleviate drought and meet agricultural needs throughout the county.

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Nikola Tesla was one of the most brilliant inventors of all time. He introduced the world to alternating current which revolutionized the production and distribution of electricity. Likewise, he attempted to make electricity available to everyone in America through wireless power transmission at virtually free cost. The big industrialists of the early 1900s fought this innovation tooth and nail and ultimately destroyed Tesla’s career in an attempt to galvanize control of local utilities to keep the price of power generation artificially high. Tesla never had a chance.

The same dynamic is preventing innovation in the field of water supply in the United States that could easily be made universally available through a national water system at a fraction of the cost. Such technology dates back to the ancient Romans who developed a system of aqueducts throughout the empire, resulting in the elimination of drought and an increase in agricultural production. These systems used archaic technology but still carried water enormous distances.

The effects of global warming have increased the incidence of drought across the country and the outbreak of massive forest fires never seen before. Drought.gov estimates that 40.13% of the United States of the lower 48 states experiences severe drought conditions. This is horribly illustrated each night in the national news as large swathes of California go up in smoke, pushing the total spending of the State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to billions of dollars. You read that right and this is just a statement.

A national aqueduct system using technology unknown to the Romans would revolutionize the distribution of water resources and relegate drought conditions to the history books. Areas of intense rain and flooding, especially in the tropics, would provide an abundant source of water that could be transported by pipelines to badly needed Midwestern and Western states.

The establishment of a national aqueduct system is obvious. Let’s work together to make this a reality.

Hardberger

HARDBERGER 1

Suggesting a national aqueduct to solve our water problems is like advising everyone to move to Mars to escape the overflowing landfills. This shock and awe approach both avoids acknowledging that we created the problem and absolves us from being part of the solution. Excessive engineering without caring about natural systems started this mess, so it’s up to us to include science and our own behavior in the solution.

Ironically, this engineering marvel will only create more demand for water. The Romans were wise enough to use gravity-powered systems, but a national water system would require amounts of energy that would make Tesla blush. Because water is needed to generate electricity, an energy-intensive water system only erodes the profits.

The Romans also had the distinct advantage of an uninhibited imperial regime of pesky private property rights. The last time I checked, the eminent domain was not gaining any popularity contests and the amount of land required for this project would block it in court for decades. It is also unclear who would pay for all these easements, let alone the lawyers needed to obtain them.

Removing water from an area will raise valid questions about necessity. While many dry areas excel at water efficient practices, this is not true of all places that crave more. Just ask Dallas how it went when it sought to import water from east Texas before maximizing municipal conservation practices.

Long-term water supply projects also ignore how water works in nature. Exporting water permanently removes it from its local cycle, causing significant damage to local users and killing the long-term sustainability of the source needed for export.

Solutions must begin closer to home by working with natural systems rather than against them. The romance of great engineering won’t save the day. Water is local, start with local solutions.

MOSTER 2

No, Professor Hardberger, building a national water system is not like escaping to Mars to avoid a landfill problem. It’s a lot easier, and you just have to ask the people who have built thousands of miles of pipelines carrying a much more volatile substance across America – oil.

If an explosive product can be transferred thousands of miles, a resource as stable as water can certainly be delivered in the same way. While the ancient Romans had to rely on primitive technology involving the use of gravity to perform their aqueduct systems, a plethora of modern systems are available for contemporary use that does not require the participation of rocket scientists. In fact, aqueducts have been used successfully in major cities including New York (Catskill Aqueduct). The Colorado Aqueduct supplies Los Angeles with water for nearly 250 miles, and the Central Arizona Project stretches for 336 miles. The technology is already in place and just needs to be extended.

Professor Hardberger seems obsessed with the potential feuds between landowners and the challenges of conquering a prominent estate. As a lawyer practicing in this area, she raises a valid point. However, the federal government has the advantage in these disputes and generally wins. The overriding interests at the national level will override local concerns and will equally prevail. Watch the first mainland railways and even the construction of the Erie Canal. Same problem with water.

I am not convinced that the use of an aqueduct will upset the ecological balance of local water use as argued by Professor Hardberger. Just ask the people of New Orleans and other coastal areas of the United States who are inundated with flooding every hurricane season. They would like to get rid of their excess water. Same deal in Houston and Galveston for much of the year.

Americans are visionaries and get things done. Let’s apply this talent and energy to building a national aqueduct.

HARDBERGER 2

The question is not whether an aqueduct is possible. The question is whether the idea is two inches from the madness. The existence of a pipeline network should not affect the advisability of building something similar for water. The two are fundamentally different.

Oil and gas have no value until they are taken out of the ground. These ancient mineral deposits are not part of a dynamic system. They constitute a non-renewable accumulation. On the other hand, a source of water has no more value once it is depleted. Exporting it only benefits the entrepreneurs who build the soon-to-be-useless system and maybe a few politicians along the way.

The examples of aqueducts provided prove this perfectly. The water diverted to build Los Angeles was stolen from the once fertile Owens River Valley, turning it into a dry dust bowl. In the absence of litigation to protect nearby Mono Lake, the remaining water would have disappeared, while LA happily watered its lawns. The Colorado River is another example of construction first and demand later. Dangerously low reservoir levels threaten the reliability of water for millions of people, in part because the calculations were wrong when water was initially allocated.

The Catskills project is a big contrast. Although the water is moved to New York City, it is the antithesis of a large transportation water distribution system suggested here. There, various regional partners within a watershed have come together to preserve the natural environment and ensure water sustainability. This is exactly the type of local synergistic planning that is needed.

Before we embark on building the Eighth Wonder of the World just because we can, I challenge the same visionary Americans to consider nature when we build our cities and our industry. Too often we have assumed that water cannot flow. No aqueduct avoids this possibility.

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About Keith Tatum

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