Ideas come fast every time California endures a drought of several years. Each time, some of them are accepted and put into use, thus making the next drought a bit easier to handle.
Back in the 1970s, the last time this state saw as protracted a dry spell as today’s, snickering and cries of “yuck” ensued when some environmentalists proposed reusing water from dishes, baths, showers and more to irrigate grass and shrubbery rather than merely disposing of it as sewage.
This idea is now called “grey water,” and it is required of much new industrial and multi-family construction like apartments and condominiums, along with low-flow faucets, shower heads and toilets.
During that same drought, which ended abruptly with a huge storm season starting in December 1977, the late Kenneth Hahn, a longtime Los Angeles County supervisor who fathered both a Los Angeles mayor and a current congresswoman, suggested snagging icebergs as they calved from Antarctica and dragging them north to become drinking water.
That idea has not yet taken, even as the same global warming trend that some believe responsible for the severity of California’s latest dry period now sees more icebergs than ever dropping from Antarctic cliffs.
The modern drought is also producing new ideas, including several proposed methods for desalinating sea water far more cheaply than via the current reverse osmosis filtering technique.
It’s also seeing rehashes of old ideas. One of the most prominent is the notion of building pipelines to bring California water from faraway sources plagued by more precipitation than they need.
This one gets its most recent push from actor William Shatner, the Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame. Shatner, 84, proposes building a pipeline on the scale of the Alaskan oil pipeline to bring water south from Washington state, where he says there’s an excess. Shatner proposes a Kickstarter campaign to raise the approximate $30 billion this one would cost to build.
Trouble is, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee this spring declared a drought in 13 of his state’s river basins. Any visitor to the Evergreen State will see swaths of once-green conifers turning brown. So it doesn’t look like Shatner will be able to beam this one up anytime soon.
Like the Antarctic icebergs, a Pacific Northwest water pipeline was also a Kenny Hahn pipe dream, this one during a somewhat shorter but still severe drought in the early 1990s, a time when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, an ex-Marine, asked all Californians to save water via “Navy showers,” turning the water off while they soaped down.
Hahn found a political partner for the pipeline idea in then-Gov. Walter Hickel of Alaska, who traveled to Los Angeles to pursue the notion of selling ice water to California in huge quantities. As in Antarctica, some Alaskan glaciers were then calving icebergs steadily, and still are.
Hickel proposed fabricating this pipeline of plastic on a giant barge as it was being laid on the ocean floor from southern Alaska to Southern California. Plastic, he and Hahn believed, would be far cheaper and more flexible than the usual steel and concrete used for oil pipelines. Plus, any leakage of pipeline water – unlike oil – would be harmless.
Some thinkers today hear of flooding and record blizzards in the East and Midwest and propose building a water pipeline from there. “You wouldn’t have to worry about leakage, like with oil,” one Google engineering manager said recently, echoing Hickel. “If water leaked, it would do no harm.”
Drought in the Northwest (several Oregon counties also are in official states of drought now, too) makes it unlikely California will soon get water from there. But a water pipe from the Midwest is conceivable under two circumstances: 1) the price of water rises enough to pay for construction, the same pre-condition needed for new desalination plants, or 2) California is able to extract enough natural gas from the Monterey Shale formation to free up one of the three major gas pipelines bringing that fuel here from Canada, Texas, Oklahoma and the Rocky Mountain region.
These ideas may sound far-fetched today, or even silly to some, but if gray water could become a reality, why not a water pipeline from someplace very wet?