Drought revives ideas to shift water from Mississippi to help West

When Paul Cofell of Red Wing read a letter in the Palm Springs Desert Sun suggesting that water could be diverted from the Mississippi River and piped to the Colorado River basin, he couldn’t stay quiet.

Cofell wrote to the newspaper, advising Californians that if they come for the Midwest’s water, “we have plenty of dynamite in Minnesota.”

He didn’t anticipate the flood of responses to the paper that followed, some supportive, some angry. Cofell even got a call from the Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office, who told him some viewed his letter as threatening and advised him not to make any more references to dynamite.

“The reaction I got was quite astounding,” Cofell said. 

The incident highlights the passionate reaction to the idea of sending water from the Midwest to the southwestern United States, where an ongoing drought and population growth have created a looming water crisis. States such as California, Arizona and Nevada are facing severe restrictions on their water use.

One proposed solution making headlines is diverting water from the Mississippi River or some other water source to those drier states. Recent flooding along the Mississippi has led some to wonder, why not send some of that excess water to where it’s desperately needed?

Julie Makinen, the Desert Sun’s executive editor, said the topic of transporting water set off a cascade of interest, with letters pouring in from all over the world.

Some argue that the West’s current water systems date back decades to when there were far fewer people, and modern engineering solutions are needed. And they point out that agriculture in California and other western states is a national resource, she said.

“When the Midwesterners get very possessive about, ‘Don’t touch a drop of our water,’ then people here are like, ‘OK, well, don’t go to your supermarket looking for strawberries in January,’” Makinen said.

Others argue that “we shouldn’t try to engineer our way out of these problems,” she said.

“That means stop having surf parks and stop having green grass lawns, and stop building houses in places where it’s hard to get water,” Makinen said.

Plans to pipe water from wetter to drier regions of the country have been floated since the 1960s, and a few actually were built, said Todd Jarvis with the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University. 

Since then, the water shortage in the Southwest has grown more dire, Jarvis said.

“We’re now looking at will the drought ever be broken?” he said. “I think everybody’s starting to think maybe this is the new normal.”

That scarcity has made water a valuable commodity, Jarvis said, attracting new interest in ideas to move it from one basin to another.

“The participants in the proposals are no longer governments,” he said. “We’re talking [about] private industry. Hedge funds are starting to look at water. We’re starting to see water show up on Nasdaq as far as futures.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2022/09/07/drought-revives-ideas-to-shift-water-from-mississippi-to-help-west

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