Limits to water transfers in a telecoupled world: Zombie water projects
Water is badly distributed around the world from a human perspective, with areas of great abundance and others of great scarcity. Throughout history, this had led to the development of physical means of transferring water from one place to another, from ancient irrigation canals and qanats, to modern long-distance aqueducts, pipelines, and river diversions, to tankering and the use of giant water bags for moving water. The idea of large-scale water transfers continues to appeal to many, but there are serious and often misunderstood limitations to them. These limitations are economic, ecological, and political. This talk will review the history of such transfers, proposals for new large-scale transfers, and the constraints imposed by science, policy, technology, and economics. Examples of what I call “zombie” projects (water transfer proposals that should be dead but never seem to really die), include NAWAPA, the Missouri River Diversion, Alaskan water tankers, the Red-Dead canals, and more.
There will be additional large-scale water transfers in the future, but far more attention must be paid to their broad implications, including their true ecological, economic, and political costs. When these full costs are evaluated and integrated into decision making, alternative solutions to water challenges become more attractive, including especially, improvements in water productivity and efficiency, alternative supply options, and better management.