Water pipeline from Kansas to Colorado is unlikely, U.S. report concludes

The Kansas City StarDecember 14, 2012 

— A Western states pipe dream got a cold splash of reality this week when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued a long-awaited report on strategies to provide water to the parched states along the Colorado River.

Among the study’s conclusions: Importing billions of gallons of water from the Missouri River, as an anonymous Westerner suggested nearly a year ago, would be massively expensive and take decades to pull off.

The report didn’t rule out the option, giving it high marks for the amount of the water it would provide and its “technical feasiblity.” But high electricity costs and a 30-year permitting and building schedule prompted the Bureau to give the idea a low rating compared with other water-generating and water-saving possibilities.

Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the trans-Kansas pipeline hurdles were likely too high to overcome. Instead, in a conference call Wednesday, he urged thirsty westerners to focus on “solutions that are out there that will help us.”

The Bureau’s report, and Salazar’s comments, are likely to bring a sigh of relief from officials along the Missouri River basin, and as well as several “I told you sos.”

Almost to a person this week, interests along the Missouri River said the political, legal and practical problems associated with the pipeline made its construction highly problematic.

“The political hurdles to overcome are gigantic,” said former Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden, now director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes. “The likelihood is very, very slim.”

The trans-Kansas water pipeline was one of dozens of suggestions submitted last winter after federal officials asked westerners for advice on their region’s chronic water problems.

Other ideas? An undersea aqueduct from Alaska. Cloud seeding. Covering the West’s reservoirs with plastic balls to cut down on evaporation.

The study concluded a 700-mile trans-Kansas pipeline would be cheaper on a per-gallon basis than some alternatives, like towing icebergs from the Arctic Circle. It also would provide more water — 600,000 acre-feet annually, enough for 1.2 million familes — than would proposals to remove salt from specific locations in the Pacific Ocean.

But the price of the electricity needed to pump Missouri River water through a 12-foot pipeline along I-70 from Leavenworth to Denver, up a 4,300-foot slope, would be astronomical — leading to annual operating costs of more than $1 billion.

Just building the project would cost $8.6 billion, the study said. Importing water from rivers closer to the Colorado River basin would be far cheaper, the study found, although they would provide far less water.

The report said political challenges to the trans-Kansas pipeline would be expected.

Some local environmentalists — weary from arguments over flood control, endangered species and scrape-the-bottom shipping along the depleted Missouri and Mississippi Rivers — said this week that adding another use for the Missouri River’s water would likely go nowhere.

“The starting point should be to try to find ways to live within the means of each basin,” said Caroline Pufalt, conservation director for the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club. A pipeline “is just moving the problem around.”

The suck-and-pump solution was not intended to help just the 40 million drought-plagued people in the Colorado River basin, which stretches from Wyoming through several western states to California. Instead, some of the water might have been used to replenish the dwindling underground natural storage of the Ogallala aquifer in Kansas and Nebraska, or to fill upreservoirs in Kansas.

Some would go for drinking, some for irrigation and industrial uses.

The Kansas Water Office said it was aware of the pipeline proposal, but had no comment on the idea. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s office declined to comment.

Brownback recently convened a discussion of water depletion in the state.

The engineering of a pipeline would be difficult but not impossible, Hayden said. Indeed, the report gave one of its highest marks — a “B” — for the plan’s technical feasibility.

It would create construction jobs and would potentially provide a market for wind- and water-generated energy.

But “it’s a lot of water,” Hayden said.

At current release rates, 600,000 acre-feet would consume about eight days’ worth of discharge near Yankton, S.D., from the Gavins Point Dam, the last federal flood-management reservoir along the upper branch of the Missouri. It represents about 3 percent of the expected runoff into the Missouri this year.

Under a compact originally signed in the 1920s, the upper areas of the Colorado River basin are guaranteed 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually, as are the lower areas like California. But experts say droughts and over-use — and, some believe, climate change — have reduced the river to levels that threaten those promises.

“The Colorado River is in very bad shape and deeply threatened,” says a group called Save the Colorado.

Still, diverting even a small amount of Missouri River water would have almost certainly provoked an enormous political blowback from states straddling the muddy river below the proposed intake. That means Missouri and Kansas, of course, but also Mississippi River states like Illinois and Louisiana, which would likely oppose any plan to provide less water to their drought-challenged waterway.

“There is enough difficulty managing the Missouri River within the basin now,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. “Adding another dynamic outside the basin would certainly be a concern.”

Jody Farhat of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha district said the agency would take a look at any plan to divert Missouri River water, but predicted a skeptical reaction.

“Some of the other diversions that have been looked at have been far less water than (600,000 acre-feet),” she said, “and there has been push-back from some of the other interests in the basin.”

And no one can predict future demands on the river, Pufalt said. She thinks a push is underway to expand use of Missouri River water for so-called fracking — the water-intensive process of extracting natural gas from shale deposits.

Even some Coloradans say convincing other states to share their river water would have been a tough sell.

“I do know we’re pretty thirsty,” said Timothy Casey, a political science professor at Colorado Mesa University. “I know you folks are pretty thirsty over there, too.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. To reach Dave Helling, send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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