National Commentary

California’s Water Crisis


CBS’ television news magazine, 60 Minutes, devoted a segment last Sunday to the devastating water shortage facing the state of California. Three years of severe drought have left a half-million acres of prime agricultural land fallow in the state’s Central Valley, and mandatory water rationing has been imposed on a number of cities.

Among other things, the segment reported that due to the water shortage’s impact on the state’s $25 billion agricultural industry, there is 40 percent unemployment among farm workers, and major population centers such as the Los Angeles basin and Las Vegas in neighboring Nevada are directly threatened with dangerous conditions.

The population of California has grown from 18 million in the late 1960s to 38 million today, yet there has been no expansion of its extensive system of water diversion projects, including dams, canals, distribution and irrigation systems, since the mid-1960s.

While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is shown in the segment making strong and cogent statements on behalf of a growth in the state’s water diversion system, even he is shown narrowing his focus on a solution to lifting a ban that currently protects an endangered species of tiny fish.

The current crisis in California and the West serves as a backdrop to the kind of enormous infrastructural development projects that the U.S. may have no choice but to build if it wants to dig in a sustainable way out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, while addressing the issues of water and energy scarcity, high unemployment and global warming at the same time.

There are currently two major water diversion projects on the drawing boards at the present time, one the storied North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA), first developed in the 1950s by the Ralph Parsons Company in Southern California, one that this writer has advocated for over 30 years, and another, a newer so-called “Southwest Passage” concept developed in Oklahoma.

The NAWAPA plan, which has an enduring, lonely but passionate and prophetic proponent in Alaska-based Bill Tappan, a retired former Parsons executive, would divert water from northern-flowing rivers in Alaska and the Yukon province of Canada and direct them southward into the thirsty U.S. southwest and northern Mexico.

The “Southwest Passage” concept, about 15 years in the making, contemplates an inland canal connecting the Mississippi River to the U.S. desert southwest. Its proponents, including Edwin Stone of Stone Engineering in Bixby, Oklahoma, note that if a third of the Mississippi’s 105 trillion gallons of fresh water flowing annually into the Gulf of Mexico were diverted, it could irrigate up to 54 million acres of new farmland, also providing an inexpensive automated barge system and generating clean hydroelectric power.

Both projects are stunning in two ways.

First, they’re both doable. As Tappan pointed out, in a conversation with me this week, the engineering involved in building out the entire NAWAPA plan was standard “off the shelf” stuff 45 years ago, when it was first developed. It is simple, everyday engineering, he said, involving a system of diversion, collection, storage, pipeline and distribution projects.

Second, they both address an amazingly wide range of urgent needs that face the nation. Not only fresh water, but expanded food production, clean hydro-electric power, massive job creation and a frontal assault against global warming are among their benefits.

The key to reversing global warming is to increase the respiratory process between vegetation and the atmosphere, which these projects will accomplish by bringing about a huge increase in irrigated farmland and subsequent crops.

There are also two important caveats in all this.

First, the failure to achieve things of this magnitude and inclusiveness could doom the nation to an indefinite domestic scarcity and austerity in a world with emerging economically exploding new superpowers.

Second, the single significant obstacle to their development lies in the unwillingness of political leaders to place a stake in a concept this grand.

At present, nobody in the corridors of political power wants to be the first to step out and generate momentum for this. While the failure to step up will lead to terrible consequences for the U.S, if someone does, he or she will eventually become a true national hero.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at