Rethinking a pipeline to the Missouri

I’ve long dismissed the “pipeline to the Missouri River” (PTM? “canal from the Missouri”? CFM?) and other similar large-scale water importation schemes as vastly impractical distractions from serious water policy (see for example here and here).

A pipeline to Los Angeles: the Whitsett Pumping plant taking water from the Colorado River for use in Los Angeles; John Fleck, February 2015

A pipeline to Los Angeles: the Whitsett Pumping plant taking water from the Colorado River for use in Los Angeles; John Fleck, February 2015

The argument, which I get regularly from well-meaning readers, points to the big network of oil and gas pipelines spidering across the United States and asks, Why can’t we do the same thing with water? We’ve had all this flooding in Region X, and we’re so dry here in Region Y. Why can’t we just move it from there to here? Whenever these suggestions come up, my water nerd friends roll their eyes and make jokes about NAWAPA. But what if that’s just all self-referential groupthink?

Two things I read this week got me thinking about a more general problem – the risk of groupthink from the water policy “in crowd”. The first was this from OtPR about the usual suspects at a California water conference saying the usual things:

The range of public water discourse is very narrow; it is all incremental change from how we do things now.

The second was a post yesterday from Mark Lubell, about the role of those in social network cores versus those on the periphery:

Core actors often have high levels of network closure (transitivity), which can lead to redundant ideas and group think.  Periphery actors might be less subject to redundant ideas, and they could be engaging in lots of policy or other types of experiments that would be beneficial for the entire system.

The math behind my answer to well-meaning PTM advocates involves the scale of the water-versus gasoline problem. Let’s say I use a tank of gasoline a week. That’s a little more than a gallon a day. A pipeline network, combined with tanker trucks and stuff, has been sufficient to meet that need. But water, in human-usable quantities, is really big and heavy. The average Albuquerque residents uses 134 gallons of water per day. A pipeline etc. network sufficient to meet that need would have to be two orders of magnitude larger than the system that brings gasoline to my town.

This seems to be a pretty straightforward argument, and I’m off to thinking about resilience theory and collaborative social networks and the role of markets and the other subjects permitted in the polite water policy circles at the sort of high-brown conferences I attend, or the bars I frequent. But what if we’re all doing this wrong?

The Central Arizona Project brings human-usable quantities of water uphill from Lake Havasu to Phoenix at least an order of magnitude larger than the Alaska pipeline bringing oil down from the north slope. The Chinese are doing stuff that makes NAWAPA look like child’s play.

What do you think, Inkstain readers? Should a pipeline from the Missouri or large-scale water augmentation of some sort like it be part of polite water policy discourse?


  1. Interesting. I couldn’t help thinking about the cost of this idea, which is basically the cost of pumping the water from the Missouri River to Albuquerque (ignoring one-time infrastucture costs and maintenance).

    I don’t know the difference in elevation between the spot on the Missouri RIver where water would be taken out, to Albuquerque, but it’s less than Albuquerque’s elevation of about a mile. I’ll use that (and the result will scale accordingly).

    The average water usage is 134 gal/day, and Wikipedia tells me the Albuquerque metro area has a population of 887,000.

    Let’s assume ALL this water must come from the Missouri River.

    The energy needed to pump this water is about 80 megawatts. This assumes a perfect flow, with no energy loss due to friction in the pipeline, in the pumps, etc. These would no doubt make it significantly higher.

    The average cost of electricity in the US is about 12 cents/kWh, so this energy would cost $85 M/yr, or $99/resident/yr.

    The average home in the US uses about 12,000 kWh/yr (1400 Watts), so this electricity is equivalent to that of 60,000 residents, or 7% of Albuquerque’s population.

    It’s just a back-of-the-envelope number, but perhaps its order of magnitude ($100 M/yr) is right.

  2. Thanks for that link.

    Sure, there’s a lot of unrealistic assumptions in my calculation. My numbers work out to 5400 kWh/af, if I did the math correctly.

    According to the study (page 111), the CAP requires 2.8 million MWh to deliver 1.6 million acre-feet. I find that comes to an energy intensity of 1750 kWh/af.

    So my estimate of energy intensity is just over 3 times higher than CAP’s.

  3. One big difference from the CAP is the amount of water.

    I find Albuquerque’s annual water use comes to 0.13 Maf/yr. The CAP is delivering 1.6 Maf/yr, which is 12 times higher.

  4. You have to factor in how much the water actually gets lifted in it’s journey. I am not an engineer but my guess would be the actual lift would be 1.2 to 1.4 higher than the elevation gradients. If the water has to be transported over several mountain passes, it can become costly. MWD ended up having several tunnels running miles long to avoid pumping uphill too much. There is more to the costs than just the energy required.

    Perhaps, John might visit the CAP Mark Wilmer Plant or the MWD Whitsett/Gene Plants in his travels on the river. The motors at these plants are huge. The CAP plant especially. The other interesting aspect about pumping water and electrical power usage is that it is beneficial to pump the water at night. The electrical grid can accommodate the load better when everyone’s lights and HVAC systems are at a minimum. That factors in on the actual cost of pumping the water.


  5. I did factor in the lift of the water — I took it to be its maximum possible, which is Albuquerque’s elevation above sea level, which is about 1 mile. If it’s instead some value H, then multiple all my numbers by the factor (H/1 mile).

    Look, I’m not doing an engineering calculation here. I’m doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the basic physics.

    For the physics, only the total change in the water’s elevation matters, not how many times it goes up and down.

    I said I ignored infrastructure costs. And maintenance costs. And pressure loss due to friction in the long pipeline, which scales as (L/D)u^2, where L is the pipeline’s length, D its diameter, and u the velocity flow (in m^3/second). The actual amount of friction is complicated — it depends on how smooth or turbulent the water is when it flows through the pipeline.

  6. Hi John and etal,

    I’m sure we deal with a pipeline here no matter what the acronym. As pointed out, there is a fairly constant increase in elevation that really doesn’t lend itself to canal configurations. Maybe the Midwest straw.

    I’m surprised at the logistics concern. Its not an issue for Pat Mulroy so long as the Fed keeps on printing money and energy costs remain subsidized. From a midway perspective, I’m from Nebraska, I can only envision turf wars.

    The Missouri is a Corps river. This as opposed to a Bureau river. The USACE focus has primarily been on flood control as opposed to the the BOR’s overall development. The primary purpose of the Corp’s operation of the Missouri River has tended to focus on navigation benefiting the downstream states. In more recent years the Corps has had to factor in respect for some T&E Species in it’s means and goals.

    Yes, there are both upstream and downstream States along the Missouri, with some Tribal interests. As you might have surmised, this leads to conflict on how the River should be run. The upstream states, Montana and both the Dakotas where the reservoirs lie, tend to want the reservoirs full to promote recreation. While the downstream States tend to favor a navigable channel. In fact, the various groups that tend to represent the interests seem to be in a constant state of flux and disarray. There are conflicting interests within single states.

    I’m sure the precedence [(s) many] will bring about significant apprehension along the Missouri. Are we talking of a ‘little’ expansion of this benign Kansas proposal ? The last two paragraphs are the relevant ones. I don’t have a clue who is behind this .com.

    There might be the possibility that, someone might wish a project that might offset the entire MAF/Yr deficiency resulting from the ’23 Compact. Kansas is establishing a transbasin diversion to supplement groundwater. This would likely have to be a facet of the project just to get it across Kansas. California could see this as a golden opportunity to recharge their immense groundwater overdraft. Once the Right of Way is established multiple pipelines could be constructed in it. There’s going to have to be some early quantification.

    I see a lot of hurdles that would have to mastered. But, this might be the most favorable project of some of the ones that have been pulled from the back burner lately.

  7. I remember reading several months back that there was a possible break through coming in desalination. Depending upon what that was, would it make more sense to pump the water via the Pacific Ocean? (From California) It would seem to have the advantages of:

    1. Not having to worry about the source eventually drying up (unlike the Missouri)?

    2. Avoidance of turf wars.

    It’s a far out idea, but hey, with the pace of technological advance, don’t be surprised if something like this is feasible in 15 years.

  8. You didn’t say John, what got you thinking about this subject. The recent drought story? You know, the one that makes it look like a real possibility we’ll have droughts that make the “civilization enders” of centuries past, look like a walk in the park? That would get me thinking “out of the box”.

  9. Doug –

    a) Desal is definitely a live option, though the more likely path is to have inland cities help pay for coastal desal and simply using the water on the coast (at, say, Rosarita in Mexico) and doing a water accounting swap so Las Vegas, for example, uses the Colorado water that would otherwise have gone to Tijuana.

    b) see the third paragraph, where I do say what got me thinking about this.

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