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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card May 15, 2014

The Pipeline That Matters Most

Yes, I know we need oil and natural gas and the pipeline from Canada offers us the most economical means of getting it.

I also know that we will run out of oil eventually, and I can understand why so many people are reluctant to facilitate the burning of yet another vast store of it.

But whether we get that Canadian fuel pipeline or not, there's another pipeline that we really need to build. In fact, it's long overdue.

I'm speaking of the pipeline from Lake Michigan to the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

Not an oil pipeline. Not a gas pipeline. It needs to carry water.

The Great Lakes collect more water than they need. We know this because they unceremoniously dump 150,000 gallons per second over Niagara Falls. This excess goes out to sea, accomplishing almost nothing.

Lake Michigan is the dead-end Great Lake. By pumping water out of the Milwaukee/Chicago cul-de-sac, we'd improve the circulation of the lake.

Then the pipeline would transport the water through one or more pipes across the Midwest to the upper reaches of the Colorado River, where it would pour out its load into a river system that already has dams (Hoover, Glen Canyon) and reservoirs (lakes Mead and Powell), along with a system for distributing the water among California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

California is overpopulated. This is not a theoretical idea from people who think any large human population is too many. It's simply a fact: Most years, California does not collect enough rain and snow to support its population and its agriculture and industry.

The heartless and stupid solution is to say, "Let those people all move!"

But they live in California for a reason. With the highest real estate prices in America (outside of Manhattan), what draws people there are jobs, and the jobs are there because that's where certain industries happened to gather.

Eventually, the lack of water will make it impossible to sustain that population, but it seems to me likely that bringing water to the people will be cheaper than moving the jobs and the people somewhere else. Mostly because: Where else will those jobs assemble? If it happens, it will be a brutal transition that will hurt the American economy.

Not to mention the people who are forced to move. Their expensive real estate will plummet in value; with people moving out, there'll be nobody to sell their houses and office buildings to. There will be a huge loss of collective wealth.

But populations have migrated many times in history, and it's usually not a disaster, just a misfortune.

The real reason we need to get more water to California is that, partly because of the lack of rain (i.e., the oversupply of clear weather), California is one of the agricultural treasures of America. The hot, sunny Central Valley and other agricultural centers in California produce an astonishing 11.3 percent of total U.S. agricultural revenue.

If you omit livestock and count only crops, the figure rises to 15 percent of America's crop agriculture. And when you consider only fruits, nuts, and vegetables, California produces nearly half of the U.S. total.

California's agriculture also accounts for nearly $19 billion of export income for the American economy.

We all benefit from California's amazing productivity. We think of the corn and wheat belts of the Midwest as our breadbasket, and Idaho and Maine as our potato growers -- but California is the heart of practically all our other crop production.

Nowadays, though, as more and more of California's water is diverted to culinary use, the state is entering a condition of perpetual water shortage. And when nature pitches in with the worst drought since water records have been kept, it is obvious that California as we know it -- as we use it -- can't be sustained. Unless we move more water into the state.

The Michigan-Moab pipeline would have to raise the water it carries from about six hundred feet above sea level to four thousand feet -- and since it has to go through some pretty high mountains along the way, it will require some serious pumping.

But much of the pipeline is in territory that is ideal for solar and wind energy. With heavy use of the latest power-storage technology, there is no reason why the pipeline can't be designed to do its pumping without the use of any fossil fuels.

In fact, the system might well generate an energy surplus.

The cost would be trivial compared to such projects as the Interstate Highway System. Its environmental impact would be minimal. If there were a leak or a spill, the hideous substance poured out upon the land would be ... water.

The pipeline would be about 1500 miles long, instead of the 2300 miles it would take to build the pipeline across Nevada to the Central Valley directly. That's because the Colorado River system will use gravity to carry the water the rest of the way to the distribution system already in place.

Naturally, with more water to deliver, that system would have to be upgraded and expanded. But it already has unused capacity during drought years -- of which this is the worst in history.

Why should taxpayers in North Carolina help to subsidize bringing water to California?

Because California produces nearly half the fruit, vegetables, and nuts sold in grocery stores across the country. Keeping California's productivity high is a no-brainer. Everybody gains from getting more water to California.

There's a limit to how much more water California itself can generate or conserve. Already, agriculture is drawing on irreplaceable aquifers to meet temporary shortfalls. Other states have already made this mistake, with devastating results.

Californians generally do a good job of conserving and recycling the water they have. They do a way better job than we did in Greensboro, when a call for voluntary conservation during a recent drought led to a record high in water consumption rather than a decrease!

But conservation, even when people cooperate, doesn't solve the problem, it only postpones the day of reckoning -- and decreases system resiliency when there's a once-in-a-century drought.

Like the one California is undergoing right now.

If we allow the California water economy to crash, we will all pay -- food prices will rise, and some commodities will disappear for everyone except the well-to-do.

Plus, the Californians fleeing the drought-ravaged state will arrive here and in other states, seeking jobs -- and poorer because they lost the value of their once-expensive homes and office buildings.

As those properties lose value and can't be sold to anybody, foreclosures will rise steeply, and the mortgage holders will be hit hard. A huge amount of wealth will evaporate, and secure loans will turn out to be unsecured after all.

How many North Carolinians are prepared to compete with hungry ex-Californians in their same line of work? The most populous state in the U.S. might suddenly flood all the other states with excess workers -- experienced in high-tech professions, and willing to take much lower salaries in order to get any employment at all.

Or they'll go abroad in a brain-drain that America can ill afford.

Right now, water that could save the California economy is flowing out to sea, generating only a few tourist dollars as people say Ooh and Aah at Niagara. Nobody would notice the decrease in Niagara's flow if we were pumping a hundred million gallons a year out of the Great Lakes -- out of the trillion gallons that flow over the falls.

The amount we'd pump may seem small compared with the 2.9 trillion gallons of water that California uses each year. But the idea is to provide an annual excess that keeps California's reservoirs topped up and forestalls the need to tap into deep aquifers during a drought.

By running the pipeline in relatively wet years, the state's water system will have more resiliency in drought years.

The best thing about water is that none of it is burned up or wasted. Unused water eventually evaporates and returns to the land -- somewhere -- in the form of rain and snow.

Water isn't so much a renewable resource as a naturally relocating resource. And the pipeline would be far cheaper, and less environmentally dangerous, than massive desalination of ocean water along the California coast.

We in Greensboro suffered severe water shortages due to environmentalist lawsuits that delayed the Randleman Dam, followed by incredible governmental incompetence that kept the water from reaching our water pipes.

California also has a history of tragically incompetent government. But its leaders have been no more short-sighted than ours were. And, when drought finally pushed government to act, we were very happy to have the water from Randleman Dam come online.

In the meantime, while we waited, we bought water from nearby communities that had an excess supply. It was piped into our system.

It made sense, didn't it? It was worth the cost, wasn't it? Because the alternative was a forced evacuation of the city and a shut-down of our economy.

California has more than a hundred times the population of Greensboro. So their water needs are greater, and the locations with enough water to make a difference are farther away.

Water is part of the vital infrastructure that makes civilization possible. Just as the Romans built expensive aqueducts that strode across the land from mountain streams to bring water to their cities, we also have the ability to move water from where nature puts it to where we need it.

The construction of the Michigan-Moab pipeline would be only a minor and temporary economic stimulus. But the completion of it would shore up one of the mainstays of our national economy. I think it's worth the cost -- because the cost of doing nothing would be far higher for all of us.

California's water shortfall is an American problem, and it's time we recognized that and took collective action to shore up one of our most productive sister states.

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