Water is the new oil: Piping Lake Superior water West?

Call it climate change "war games."

The questions may seem far fetched today. The answers could be be more scary than the questions.

What sounds like futuristic climate fiction is actually a growing reality today in the West as water supplies dwindle for 52-million people in the fourth year of epic drought. As you can see on the map, it's not just California.

west drought
US Drought Monitor. USDA/UNL

California grabs most of the headlines. But I have written for years about the dire state of falling water levels in Lake Mead.

Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir in the United States, supplies water to western cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson and San Diego. I have made several trips to the Lake Mead in the past five years, most recently in February. Even electric power generation on the Hoover Dam is facing challenges as water levels drop.

The infamous bathtub ring around Lake Mead in October 2010. Paul Huttner/MPR News

As Nevada races to complete a new intake straw near the lake's bottom, Lake Mead is reaching new record lows according to KLAS TV in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS -- Lake Mead has nearly set a new record when its water level measured at 1081.10 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

It's the lowest level since the lake was filled in the 1930s and 148 feet below capacity. It's predicted the lake will hit 1075 feet on May 31 and then begin to fill back up in September when there are water releases. The prior lowest level was reached on Aug. 13, 2014 when the lake was at 1080.19 feet.

NPR's Kirk Siegler has this update on how Lake Mead is reaching new critical lows this year.


The historic four-year drought in California has been grabbing the headlines lately, but there's a much bigger problem facing the West: the now 14-year drought gripping the Colorado River basin.

One of the most stunning places to see its impact is at the nation's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. At about 40 percent of capacity, it's the lowest it's been since it was built in the 1930s.

"Just to see the rings around it, it's just ... kind of scary, you know," says Darlene Paige, a visitor from New York. She's standing at a vista point above the Hoover Dam on the Arizona side of Lake Mead.

That "ring" is the infamous bathtub ring around the rim of the reservoir. The levels have dropped 140 feet over the past 15 years, exposing a white stain on the gravelly brown mountains above the water. The level is forecast to fall an additional 10 feet by this summer.

The snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, where the Colorado and much of the Southwest gets most of its water, is again at less than half of normal this year.

"There are a lot of people, entities and critters that rely on this Colorado River water," says Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Farther down the mountain, on a walkway next to the Hoover Dam, Davis points out the 10-story-high towers that used to be mostly underwater. The lake's levels are nearing a critical trigger where the Bureau of Reclamation will start rationing water deliveries to Nevada, Arizona and parts of California.

California Drought USGS
Disappearing lake in California. USGS

Meanwhile in California

As dwindling water supplies reach critical phase in California some wacky ideas are starting to surface. Like a (bad?) Hollywood script, cue Star Trek's Captain Kirk to the rescue?

MSN tells the story of a William Shatner imagined water pipeline from Washington down to parched California.

msn logo

William Shatner has a $30B plan to end California's drought

William Shatner in full Captain Kirk mode is looking to marshal a crew for a project with an astronomical budget to deal with California's drought problems, although some might call it a pipe dream.

The "Star Trek" star has told Yahoo Tech journalist David Pogue he intends to start a crowdsource campaign on Kickstarter.com to raise $30 billion for a pipeline to bring water from the Seattle area for use by thirsty California.

"How bad would it be to get a large, 4-foot pipeline, keep it above ground - because if it leaks, you're irrigating," the 84-year-old Shatner told Yahoo! in a story posted on Friday.

"Bring it down here and fill one of our lakes! Lake Mead!" said Shatner, referring to a lake on the border between Arizona and Nevada.

Already, the idea has run into one big obstacle: Officials in Washington state are pouring cold water on it.

"Frankly we found it highly illogical, to put it in 'Star Trek' terms," said Washington Department of Ecology spokesman Dan Partridge, using a catch phrase of "Star Trek" character Spock. "This would involve so many obstacles, so many hurdles that it would have to overcome to become reality.

Great Lakes pipeline?

Which leads us back to the title of this post.

Without being alarmist, it's well within foreseeable possibility that another year or two of drought in California and the West will trigger unprecedented emergency water shortages. Hopefully the worst case scenarios will not play out. But then again very few thought it would get this far.

A strengthening El Nino this year may give the West another chance at a wet winter with heavy mountain snows next winter.

NOAA- Climate Prediction Center

But what if El Nino fails to produce heavy rain and mountain snow pack again next winter? What if long-term drought in the West continues for another decade?

What happens when major cities in California and the west start running out of water? One well respected NASA scientist has said it could start happening within a year.

Past droughts in California's paleoclimate record have lasted 10, 20, even 200 years. What happens if the current western drought lasts another four years? Another 10 to 20 years?

How long before they start coming for our water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes?

How long before somebody proposes a much more serious project to build a 900-mile pipeline from Lake Superior to the Green River watershed in southwest Wyoming?

Superior to WY2
A Lake Superior to Wyoming water pipeline?

The Green River flows south through Utah into the Colorado River which ultimately feeds Lake Mead.

Green River
USGS/Wikipedia Commons

Yes, a Superior-Green River pipeline seems unrealistic, even impossible at first glance. A massive fresh water bearing pipeline on the scale of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline? It would cost billions in pipeline construction and pumping stations. Seemingly endless red tape and governmental water rights hoops to jump through. Why would Minnesota, other Great Lakes states and Canada be willing to part with massive amounts of precious water?

1603 lsmm2
Lake Superior near Duluth. Lake Superior Maritime Museum.

As remote as an idea like this seems today, I can't help but wonder if it could be a proposed reality in the future. As I witness climate changes unfold this forward looking meteorologist, geographer and student of climate science can envision seismic changes ahead that might seem far fetched today.

Write this down as climate change accelerates.

Water is the new oil.

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