A Manhattan Project to Save the America from Drought

As the Earth continues to warm, our weather becomes increasingly unpredictable. While flash floods wreak havoc on some areas of the United States, many others are devastated by seemingly unending drought.

Global warming brings with it a long list of serious consequences, but I’m just going to focus on one of them. Drought.

Anyone who watched their TV, read news on the Internet, or passed by a newsstand during the summer drought of 2012 couldn’t help but see pictures like the one below:

I spent the summer of 2012 working in Oklahoma so this was a lot closer and more personal than it would’ve been had I been home in the relatively wet Pacific Northwest. Along with numerous other areas of the country, America’s breadbasket was facing drought conditions the like of which we haven’t seen since the dust bowl days of the 1930s. I was working with a natural gas pipeline company that summer which led me to wonder:

“If we can transport oil and natural gas via a network of pipelines throughout the country, why couldn’t we do the same for water?”

Witnessing the dying crops throughout the Midwest, a few things started to become clear to me. It won’t be the heat from global warming that wipes out humanity; hundreds of millions of people already live in parts of the world where it’s significantly hotter than the average high temperatures recorded in America. Instead, it will be the effects of disappearing water in the places we need it most. Our crops will die and then our livestock will die. Along with the obvious shortage of water from the drought, food prices will skyrocket and there just won’t be enough to go around. This introduces a security problem. The security problem is further compounded by all the unemployed farm workers and ranch hands. I’m sure you can figure out how the rest of this story could play out.

Oh, and a global warming fighter dies too. Trees. During the last several years, 300 million trees that could be pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere have died in the Texas drought.

So back to the pipeline idea. While moving water from states that have it to those who don’t is a good start, it may not be enough. A quick look at the U.S. Drought Monitor site at the time of this writing shows ten states where over 50% of their land mass is experiencing severe drought. The level of widespread extreme and exceptional drought in four of our top food producing states (California, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas) is truly terrifying.

When you get right down to it, there’s only one place with unlimited water. The ocean.

“Why can’t we desalinate seawater and transport the freshwater via a network of pipelines to the interior of the country?”

Since I had the privilege of serving on board a couple of U.S. Navy submarines, I know a little something about this. Living under the sea surrounded by undrinkable saltwater, we utilized a distillation process that boiled seawater and moved the salt-free vapor to a condenser to get freshwater. You may have performed this experiment as a kid in your science class. Since this process required heat and energy, we used the world’s most powerful and efficient power plant; a nuclear reactor. While I’m sure you learned how nuclear fission works in school, you may not realize that a single uranium atom produces 10 million times more energy than the combustion of a single coal atom. In fact, U.S. aircraft carriers use nuclear power to desalinate 400,000 gallons per day. Aside from distillation, most desalination plants around the world use a process called reverse osmosis where pressurized seawater is pushed through a water-permeable membrane to filter out the salt and other dissolved contaminants.

It’s important to note that desalination should always be used as a last resort after exhausting all other options like water conservation and reuse. The negatives of creating plants to desalinate ocean water include the possible ingestion of tiny sea life (plankton, fish eggs, fish larvae, etc) through the underwater intake pipes, high costs, the discharge of a salty sludge (brine) back to the sea, and of course, they require a tremendous amount of energy. That being said, for states that are experiencing long-term, severe droughts or worse, the horses are already out of the barn.

The states that are in the worst shape and are currently running out of water include:

  • California (100% severe drought)
  • Nevada (87% severe drought)
  • New Mexico (86% severe drought)
  • Kansas (80% severe drought)
  • Arizona (76% severe drought)
  • Oklahoma (65% severe drought)
  • Texas (56% severe drought)

Generally speaking, areas most in need include:

  • Those that receive low amounts of rainfall (obvious)
  • Those that depend on lakes, rivers and streams that are drying-up
  • Those that have a minimal water in underground aquifers
  • Those that depend on snow melt from a diminishing snowpack
“In short, my plan to combat the current severe droughts plus water shortages we may face in the future is to line our coasts (Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico) with desalination plants connected to a matrix of pipelines that can transport the water to wherever it’s needed. While being an energy-intensive system, it must not have a carbon footprint, so the use of fossil fuels is a not an option. While it will be built to provide for all of America’s water needs, its design will facilitate the economical shutdown of unneeded desalination plants and associated pipelines when rainfall patterns warrant.”

Phase One

As shown in the figure below, the entire coastline of the United States must be populated with enough desalination plants to augment the freshwater needs of the entire country, not just the nearby coastal areas and cities. A typical reverse osmosis plant costs roughly $1 billion and takes a few years to build. Since desalination plants require a lot of energy to operate, roughly 38 megawatts, either a large solar farm, large wind farm or small nuclear power plant must be co-located at the site. We’re talking billions more in up-front capital costs for power generation. As you might imagine, operational costs come next once everything is up and running. With all sites at full capacity, billions of gallons would be pulled from the oceans every day which helps us combat rising sea levels caused by collapsing ice sheets and other melting.

Phase Two

With the desalination plants built and powered-up, pipelines must be connected and extended across the country as shown in the figure below. Each multi-billion dollar pipeline uses a series of pumping stations needed to keep tens of thousands of gallons of water flowing through the system to their intended destinations. These pumping stations use impellers to pressurize the pipe and push the water along. The number of pumping stations needed for each pipeline will depend on things like distance, getting help from gravity and more difficult scenarios like moving water over mountain ranges. In keeping with the principle of a zero carbon footprint, solar farms will provide power to all the electric pumping stations.

Does this approach to solving our widespread drought problem sound super-ambitious? Absolutely. This is just my idea. Due to its common sense nature, I can only assume that I’m not the only one who thought of pumping desalinated ocean water to America’s breadbasket. When I was doing start-ups in the past, I seem to remember a venture capitalist or angel investor reminding me to assume that 10,000 other people had the same idea that I had at any given moment. In the end, execution is critical to success.

This is a Manhattan or Apollo moonshot project not just because of the impact on society, but also because of the enormous costs involved. Only the U.S. government and therefore the taxpayers have the potential trillions of investment needed to pull this off. While it’s easy to be frightened by these costs, the alternative of doing nothing is dramatically worse. There are at least several million details to work out in order to make this plan a workable reality but it’s all do-able. We are not inventing any new technology here. We’re just plugging existing technologies together to create a system designed to save us all. Just imagine how many individual steps were taken in order to put Neil and Buzz on the moon.

While global warming continues to put our cumulative backs against the wall, humankind has the intelligence needed to change the odds when it comes to our survival.

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I’m Rob Tiffany. I’m passionate about writing, enterprise mobility, business strategy, water issues and the Internet of Things. Invite me to speak at your event or set up a conversation on your podcast. I’m excited to hear from you!