Press "Enter" to skip to content

Conservation, Recycling Better Options for Southwest Water than Missouri River Pipeline

So did you hear the one about the guys who wanted to build a pipeline to ship Missouri River water to Phoenix and Las Vegas?

No, seriously, that's one of the plans considered in a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation report issued this week on meeting the water needs of growing population and industry in the Colorado River Basin. The pipeline would take water from the Missouri River at Leavenworth, Kansas, run 670 miles west along I-70 to Denver, and pour billions of gallons a year into a water system that serves Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

If the plan came down to a vote, South Dakota might be at a disadvantage against the Southwestern metroplexes booming with our snowbirds. But with up-river states fighting for Missouri River irrigation and recreation, and down-river states fighting for high water levels to sustain barge traffic, it seems the whole bunch of us east of the Continental Divide could come together to fight any proposal to ship our water west.

The USBR itself is skeptical on technical grounds. Pumping water through a 12-foot pipeline uphill 4300 feet would use a lot fo electricity and cost a billion dollars a year. According to the USBR report's executive summary, importing water from the Missouri and Mississippi basins might cost more, would take longer to bring online, and produce less water than building massive desalination plants off California. Even water reuse—recapturing the "grey" water coming from washing clothes and other uses not requiring major treatment for use in irrigation, industrial cooling, etc.—could come online sooner and ease the Colorado Basin's water squeeze sooner than big Missouri River imports (see USBR Technical Report G, Table G-10, page G-48.

The American Southwest is managing to use less water, thanks to conservation. Unfortunately, over the last decade, the water supply has dropped below demand:

Colorado River Basin water supply and demand, ten-year averages
from USBR Study Report, Dec 2012,, p. SR-7

The USBR projects that demand will tick up again, while natural supply will remain within a steady range that within 30 years will almost always be too low to meet demand. As Peter Gleick points out, these projections assume that we don't impose stronger limits on development and water usage. The above chart shows that better technology, sensible behavior, and regulation can reduce water usage even as population and economic activity grow. We should focus on those options before we try making the Missouri River run uphill.


  1. Jerry 2012.12.14

    ETSI lives! If something is beaten, wait a couple of decades and then repackage it and put it on the shelves. I can see them now saying that you could put grain in the pipeline and ship it down stream instead of using it as coal slurry. We all better be thinking a lot about our water as there are so many either trying to steal it or pollute it with mining oil pipelines and so many other things. Conserve it and stop using it for irrigation would be the most obvious.

  2. Douglas Wiken 2012.12.14

    Move the "conservative" desert rats to the water. They want to live in a desert like great individualists, but expect the rest of the US to provide them with cheap electricity and water.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.12.14

    History, Jerry! Thank you!

    And Doug: how about we tell Phoenix residents they can have all the Missouri they want... as long as they drive out and get it themselves in their minivans?

  4. Douglas Wiken 2012.12.15

    Cory, that is not a favorite idea of my conservative relatives in Phoenix. They changed their e-mail address so they did not have to put up with any intellectual challenges to their mythology and hypocrisy regarding water and power.

  5. Les 2012.12.15

    Don't forget the Cali rats wanting our WAPA and other cheap power sources along with all the water the left coast produces Doug.

  6. Rob Butterfield 2014.09.06

    This will solve a lot of issue. Western states are in a drought. Adding land that can be farm due to increase in water. Midwest flood happen very year moving the water would save lives and home in Midwest. Farmer and Ranger in the west need water animal will die farm will not be able to produce food.

  7. Rob Butterfield 2014.09.06

    To move the water we use four power soucers
    1 wind generator
    2 solar panels
    3 Aqua generators
    4 Gravity

Comments are closed.