Political Habitat: Water, water ... everywhere?
Humanity is often at its worst and wackiest in our search for water. Peter Dykstra on a free-flowing font of bad ideas.
Wed, Apr 08, 2009 at 05:06 AM
Back in the 1960s, it looked for a time that Quebec’s Separatist Movement just might succeed in winning independence from the rest of Canada. One of the cornerstones of the movement was a grandiose, and ultimately harebrained, scheme to bankroll Quebec’s independence: Build an enormous pipeline from the mostly uninhabited North and run it across the continent to the growing, and dry, American Southwest.
It never came close to reality, but much to my surprise, the idea is still alive -- albeit no smarter now than it was then. Daniel Klymczyk -- no separatist he -- writes for a Canadian think tank called the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Mr. Klymczyk, a former exec with the Canadian arm of the Safeway grocery chain, would like to see $42 billion (Canadian dollars) of Mr. Obama’s stimulus package go to build the pipeline from Manitoba to Dallas.
The pipeline scheme/scam is just one of a litany of big dreams and big hallucinations on how to fix the world’s water problems. During the height of the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Russians pushed the idea of using low-yield nuclear weapons as “giant bulldozers” to create reservoirs and irrigation channels. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program actually carried out several small nuke tests before being sidetracked. Russia pursued some non-nuclear mega-engineering projects with disastrous results: Water diversion from the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest freshwater lake, has caused it to nearly completely vanish.
Patrick Quilty, an Australian polar researcher, got to see a lot of ice during his visits to Antarctica. Why not, thought Professor Quilty, just bring it to the driest regions of Africa? It would be really easy. Just liberate a 1,800-foot-by-1,200-foot berg from the Antarctic coast. (It would also be about 450 feet deep in the water, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as they say.) Find a ship that can tow a floating mass of 32 million tons, throw a mile-long chain around the iceberg, and take off for the equator. But what about losing a lot of the ice due to melting, professor? Easy, mate: A very, very large plastic bag would wrap around the berg and limit the melting.
I’m not sure the professor ever got around to figuring how to get the fresh water inland, or found a 450-foot-deep harbor to dock an iceberg. Or where to recycle the very large plastic bag.
One of my all-time favorite books is “Cadillac Desert” by the late Marc Reisner. It’s a history of all the shady dealings around the water projects that helped build the American West. The book also inspired a four-part PBS series. Particularly striking is how the growth of Los Angeles doomed Owens Lake -- America’s own Aral Sea. A fictionalized version of the intrigue of Western Water also hit the silver screen in the 1974 movie Chinatown.
Within the past year, the drought-stricken Southeastern U.S. witnessed a lame coup d’etat attempt: Georgia tried to wrestle a piece of the Tennessee River away from Tennessee. The river flows within a mile of the northwestern corner of the state of Georgia, but an apparent surveying error made in 1818 denied Georgia a chance to claim a sliver of the river, and a share of its water. The same surveyors’ error would have moved the entire southern border of Tennessee about a mile to the north, meaning a chunk of Memphis would be in Mississippi.
Georgia State Senator David Shafer, saying “it’s never too late to right a wrong,” filed a bill in the Georgia Legislature. I’m guessing that somewhere along the way, someone reminded Sen. Shafer that righting the legal wrongs of the early 1800s would also mean that the Cherokees would own the state again. The measure died a quiet death.
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