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SCGI Newsbits - Watering the West - March 2024

Newsletter of the Science Council for Global Initiatives - March 2024

Way back in 2016, after an unusually wet California winter brought relief from a multi-year drought, I began to consider how the feast-or-famine cycle of droughts in the western US could be ameliorated. Some of you may have seen a paper I published here on our SCGI website at that time, expressing relief at the momentary watery abundance while warning of the inevitability of future droughts.

That wasn’t exactly Nostradamus level prediction. So here we are again: After a serious multi-year drought, the last two winters brought abundant precipitation to California. But just prior to the arrival of the atmospheric rivers of the winter of 22-23, some people noticed my old paper on the topic and urged me to update it, saying it proposed the only real solution to the recurrent water problems of California that they’d seen.

So again the water problems of California are, for now, a matter of little concern to most people. But since the historical cycles are sure to be repeated this requires a bit of longer term thinking, I’ve done a much more in-depth study of the possible solution. Here is the abridged version in appropriate newsletter length. I encourage you to have a look at the full paper though, which you can download here.

I welcome any constructive comments. You can email me here.

Have an enjoyable springtime!

Tom Blees
President, SCGI

Watering the West

Since the dawn of civilization, diversion of water from areas of plenty to areas of scarcity has been a defining feature of human ingenuity. The history of the western United States has been shaped by both water scarcity and impressive projects to alleviate it. The best illustration of this is the California State Water Project (SWP), with dams and reservoirs built to capture precipitation in the north, and over 700 miles of canals, pumping stations, and aqueducts that have made the semi-arid Central Valley into the garden of the United States.

The winter of 2022-23 saw a series of “atmospheric rivers” dumping abnormally high levels of rain and snow in the state, a respite from a multi-year drought that saw the SWPs reservoirs shrinking to critically low levels. At the same time, the Colorado River—which provides water for some 40 million people in seven states—got so low that it could rightly be characterized as a crisis. The above-average snowpack of the winter of 22-23 and a snowpack of approximately historical averages in 23-24 has dampened the Colorado River crisis somewhat, but the water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are still far below historical averages, necessitating negotiations among the various states involved that utilize that river’s water.

Ideas about how to deal with these issues have included desalination on a hitherto undreamed-of scale and desperate projects to shuffle scarce water around in a hydrological shell game in California. But the millions of acre-feet of water that could solve these problems will never materialize from such projects. There is, however, a solution: The ORCA Project.

ORegon and CAlifornia (hence ORCA) can collaborate in a project that could immensely benefit both states, and even help to ameliorate the Colorado River water crisis. A critical component of this plan would involve raising Shasta Dam, in northern California, to its original design height of 800 feet. America’s entry into WWII happened as the dam was being built, and consequent constrained supplies of both steel and manpower resulted in stopping the dam construction at 600 feet. Raising the dam to its intended height would result in more than a tripling of Shasta Lake’s volume to about 14 million acre-feet, more than all other northern California reservoirs put together. Shasta Lake would thus anchor the SWP with a reliable source of water for the farms and cities to the south.

Despite the fortunate precipitation levels of these past two winters, harsh historical experience makes it all but certain that in many future years, precipitation in the winter months in the Shasta Lake watershed will fall short of filling that prodigious reservoir. That’s where the ORCA Project comes in. This plan would divert water from two of the twenty-two turbines at the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River into a canal system to be built along the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountain Range, terminating at the McCloud River near Mount Shasta, and flowing from there into Shasta Lake. The Dalles Dam is the second-to-last dam on the Columbia River, and the last dam that doesn’t experience substantial tidal flows that could cause brackish water in the future. This diversion could be managed in a way that never diminishes the water level in the Columbia below normal levels, and which would have no impact on fish in the river. This is water that would just be flowing to the sea, intercepted from that course at the last opportune location.

Oregon would reap tremendous benefits from such a project. The eastern 60% of the state is mostly arid or semi-arid, much like the Central Valley of California that was transformed into the garden of the USA by the SWP. Oregon landowners east of the Cascades would be able to build spurs off the main canal to transform eastern Oregon into another bounteous agricultural powerhouse that would consistently bring billions into the state’s economy for the foreseeable future. And the multi-year construction of the aqueduct system would provide thousands of high-paying jobs to Oregon’s citizens and businesses. In addition to all that, future revenues from the sale of the water to cities and farms could also contribute to Oregon’s coffers for decades. And all this by simply diverting water that would otherwise flow unused to the sea, to no one’s benefit.

Finally, the ORCA Project’s provision of the needed water to California’s SWP would allow that state to voluntarily relinquish its substantial claim to water rights from the Colorado River, which is a major drain on that system. It would also make two very costly planned water projects in California irrelevant. Unlike the ORCA Project, neither the Delta Tunnel nor the Sites Reservoir would add a drop of water to the system, only shuffle it around at immense cost. The ~$40 billion that would be saved by abandoning those two ill-advised schemes could instead be applied to this project that will actually solve the state’s water problems indefinitely, regardless of the fickle swings in annual precipitation that likely will become even more severe with the progress of climate change.

We used to build big things in the United States. We still can.

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