Pipe dreams: Pipelines to the Midwest and towing icebergs

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

Some strategies are as outlandish as they sound. Actors and political candidates alike have proposed piping water from wetter places, like the Mississippi River. Some have talked for decades about tapping into the Great Lakes.

California has a long, storied history of moving water — some say stealing — from one place to another within the state. It’s even inspired at least one movie

“If history has taught us anything,” Idaho state Sen. Brian Donesley, a former Angeleno, told the Los Angeles Times,“it is that when Californians get thirsty, they will use cash, the law, raw political power and, if necessary, the point of a gun barrel to satisfy their thirst.”

But nowadays there are many legal and logistical roadblocks that would stop California from taking water from Alaska, the Midwest or Canada. For one, other regions would be unlikely to allow it. Diverting large volumes of water from the Great Lakes, for instance, is prohibited without the approval of all eight states and two provinces in Canada under a compact signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Pipe dreams of pipelines have been floated often enough that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation evaluated them, reporting that a pipeline to the Mississippi River, for instance, would cost billions, use up a lot of energy to pump the water, require decades of construction and face a quagmire of legal and policy issues. 

Even California lawmakers have eyed icier reaches of the world for new water supplies: In 1978, the Legislature passed a resolution calling for federal support of a pilot program to tow icebergs from Antarctica. 

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
A resolution approved by the California Legislature in 1978. lllustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

Towing icebergs and filling up tankers with freshwater from Alaska drew mentions from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as well as this diplomatic verdict: These ideas “have either significant technical feasibility challenges or significant questions regarding their reliability.”

A small iceberg, for instance, would contain only 250 to 850 acre-feet of water and would require new port terminals, pipelines and pumps to transport the melted ice to a reservoir. The process would take “at least 20 years.”

As for tankers, even the largest would hold only about 80 million gallons — barely a drop in the bucket for California.

Still, the ideas endure. At a press conference in summer 2022, Newsom fielded a question about whether pipelines and tankers taking water from faraway places might be the quickest ways to get more water to California. 

“What you’re talking about are break-the-glass scenarios,” Newsom answered. ”And I assure you, we have some more novel ones than the one you even approached and that are more interesting. But that’s for later.”

We’re still waiting.