The new political economics of moving water

The politics-economics interface is what fascinates me about this new idea kicking around to replenish the rapidly draining Ogallala Aquifer by moving water across Kansas from the Missouri River. As Brett Walton explained last month in Circle of Blue, it’s a modest study at this point, with costs split between the state and federal government. But the scale of the thing being considered is of the same order of magnitude size as the big water-movers of the West – the Central Arizona Project and its ilk:

Economics are foremost in Rude’s mind, because the aqueduct would be a whopper of a project — at least double the estimated $US 3.6 billion price tag from three decades ago and comparable in scale to massive water diversions like the 540-kilometer (360-mile) Central Arizona Project that was approved before the Carter administration and which was built mostly with federal money.

And there’s the rub. Because it seems clear that the days of federal funding for big projects like this are long over. There are examples of non-federal projects of this scale. Los Angeles has done it. But that’s for municipal water supplies, for which one can charge a lot more. Brett touches on the scale of the political-economic problem:

Rude acknowledges that the days of deep federal investment are probably over. Farmers, who now pay only for the energy to pump water, and other local users will have to shoulder the cost, and that represents the chief uncertainty for the project. How much will water cost? Will people pay for it? Are there possible cost-sharing partnerships with cities and industries along the route?

Do you think my premise is correct – that the days of this sort of federal project are over? If “yes”, is state and local financing in Kansas a realistic option?


  1. Federal participation may be unlikely right now but not forever, or even fairly soon, say 20 years.

    We’re presently in the grip of what might charitably be called an experiment to see if we can have all the features and benefits of civil governance but without the costs. It’s quite possible that the results of the experiment will lead to useful conclusions rather quickly.

  2. Federal funding is the original sin underlying lots of bad (never should have been build, incl the CAP) projects. It’s off the table while the government is broke, and I’d keep it off the table forever on “economic development” projects like this one that subsidize farmers. If they can’t pay, then why are they in business? I’d go further, of course, and say that they can’t even be allowed to TAKE the water that other downstream users currently rely on (instream or diverted)

  3. California has a big water problem–its north-to-south water conveyance system depends on passing water through the fragile network of channels and levees called the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. So the plan is–build tunnels to convey the water *under* the Delta. At great cost. Which cost might potentially be borne by say urban water users, who cannot abide an earthquake-caused catastrophic interruption–but would add hugely to the cost of ag water delivered via tunnel, should the cat be apportioned per unit volume. And therefore, this plan could be DOA. The second of the big north-south systems was built largely without federal funds, but relies on that fragile Delta….

  4. ” If they can’t pay, then why are they in business?”

    So that “we” can eat? I’m not sure that busting farmers’ chops over their contribution to an overpopulation problem is putting the blame in the right place.

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