The hurricanes in Florida and Texas and the wildfires in the west made me think that it was time to blather about an idea that has been bouncing around my brain for a while. A national water management system. At least 40 states are expecting water shortages in the future. A continent-spanning system of pipelines, pumps, and drains to make one region’s disastrous flood another region’s cure for a drought. The extreme volatility of weather lately is growing to be too much for local or even regional utilities and governments to handle. A hurricane like Harvey or Irma can drop more water on a small area. More than that area could ever drain or absorb. Why not make hurricanes, droughts, and monsoons work for us rather than against us?

Pumps already keep water out of places people don’t think it ever gets into. Ships have bilge pumps that expel water that leaks inside the hull. The modern day civilization of Florida apparently gets by only by having pumps removing the water that would otherwise be there. This is managed by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWM).

The country would need to build a massive network of pipelines, pumps, storage tanks, and drains to redistribute water on a constant basis. Flooding on a river could be redirected to drought-stricken areas or to deserts. We seem intent on living places that are either too wet or too dry. And the northward creep of the tropical climate is making storms more intense and drop more water. We pump and pipe oil all over the continent; why not water? In short, I want to scale up the SFWM to a continent-spanning, nationwide system. Every municipality would have storm drainage pipes that could be set to a specific height above the ground to siphon excess water when it reaches that height.

Incidentally, having such a water system would address a growing concern about a shortage of fresh drinking water here. The west doesn’t have enough water (although a lot of that water goes to agriculture rather than hydrating residents). The East, South, and parts of the Midwest are prone to flooding. The natural underground aquifers are drying up and a national water system could balance the load and help to restore them.

Of course there are some huge technical obstacles with this idea. They include waste, control, and engineering.

Floodwaters, rain water, waste water are not clean. All can have a lot of waste including raw sewage, ew, but also toxic chemicals and physical debris. The only way to deal with that is to treat the water. There are probably a host of environmental and health issues with pumping dirty water across the continent that I haven’t thought of. But, in all cases, it has to be less toxic and less flammable than pumping oil and natural gas. Right now, in every corner of the world, there are rivers, creeks, lakes and oceans with untreated, undrinkable dirty water, right out in the open!

Who would be in control of turning on pumps in, say, Buffalo, to send water to the Colorado River out west? The federal government? A state? The water companies? Right now, those decisions are all made locally or regionally. For example, the Great Lakes Charter manages the Great Lakes and prevents states from diverting water from the Great Lakes basin, even when there is flooding in that area.

There would be a ton of engineering problems. And let me assure you that I have zero engineering understanding or talent. Many cities have outdated or inadequate drainage (like having stormwater and wastewater dump into its fresh water source) and may not be able to capture or contain water. Some cities, like Houston, are much less able to handle flooding than others because of geology and development. Coastal cities face storm surges of salt water while river towns face fresh water flooding from snow melt and rain. Some cities are drilling holes into the ground, which to me seem like so many soggy bandaids on a blood-spurting wound.

Finally, like the National Weather Service, the public will never truly appreciate how much death, destruction, and financial cost it can prevent. It won’t eliminate all floods and droughts anywhere in the country and every giant puddle will cause someone to make a wry remark about the idiots running the system. The flooding will be less severe, the droughts may be shorter, but counterfactuals don’t convince the public. And with mother nature throwing increasingly strong weather events at the country, our ability to accept the magnitude of black swan events will continue to fail us. So the political support for funding this system will be shaky probably even with strenuous efforts to explain how much in lives and property the system has saved.

You’re probably thinking of a number of reasons this won’t or shouldn’t work, including:

Environmental concerns: floods and droughts happen in areas with wet and dry seasons and are part of the natural cycle the ecosystems are based on. Evening out the water situation will disrupt these plants and animals. Even worse, ‘rebalancing’ the water supply across the country could affect weather patterns, enable our inclination to do water-dumb things like growing pineapples and golf courses in deserts, and placing all these pipes and pumps will disrupt the environment as well.

My response: When a flood occurs, lives and property is in danger, the last thing on anyone’s list is maintaining the local ecosystem. The water and debris are removed ASAP, in emergency mode, even if that means flooding some non-inhabited area even worse. A national system could prevent that environmental damage. Something else lost in discussions of ecosystems is their dynamic nature – they are always adapting and changing to conditions, whether those are human-driven or not. One of the key factors that plants and animals are highly skilled at adapting too is changes in water supply. And this system would probably take the edge off of these water system shocks, not eliminate them altogether.

Keep it local: A national system requires laying millions of miles of water pipelines, installing thousands of pumps that may never be needed, and storage systems that may be long distances from where the water is siphoned and needed. We’d be disrupting watersheds by transferring water from Florida to Arizona. There’s a reason water management is a local or at best regional/state concern.

My response: Those local and regional efforts can be overwhelmed with the amount of flooding and droughts we are experiencing. Check out the water drop that fell on Houston during Harvey. Where local water management can handle it, fine. But we need a backup system for when a region is overwhelmed or about to be overwhelmed.

Cost is prohibitive: Building and maintaining such a system would be a huge financial burden. I suspect it will make the interstate highway system look like a minor paving project. And it’s becoming rarer and rarer for either the governments or private sector firms to want to spend money on existing responsibilities, much less something new.

My response: Create a nonfederal national water authority that has its own capital budget. Created by the federal government but separate from it. Another way to offset the cost would be the massive savings to the economy, the private sector, and government from flood damage and drought mitigation. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is especially true when it comes to flood prevention. There’s even a possibility of profit and a decent ROI: fresh water could be this century’s oil. The world faces a freshwater shortage. With decent management of our fresh water supplies, we might be better positioned to sell surplus fresh water to the rest of the world. At the least, the technological gains made from building such a system will make us the world leader in water management.

A national water management system could save lives, save money, avoid domestic water shortage, and possibly position the country to make money off international water shortages. Now, I’m off to drink a glass of water.

An immodest proposal for a national water management system
Tagged on: