Drought Idea: Pipe In Water From Alaska

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

OK. So it sounds a little wild. But maybe, just maybe, it would work.

Alaska has more fresh water than any other place in North America. Southern California has a drought. So take 2 billion or 3 billion gallons of water out of some of Alaska's rivers each day and ship it down to Los Angeles through a giant plastic pipe lying on the bottom of the ocean.

"It can be done," said Walter Hickel, Alaska's governor, a man who carved his personal fortune out of the Alaskan economic wilderness and likes to dream of "world-scale projects."

And true to his entrepreneurial past, Hickel doesn't want to give the water to California. He wants to sell it, but at a reasonable price, of course.

The basic concept is fairly simple, and some experts said it might be technologically feasible. Others, however, say the feat--involving factors like the spin of the Earth--is considerably more complex and fraught with potential problems.

Beyond that, whether the pipeline would be worth what it would cost is an unanswered question.

Hickel believes the pipeline could be built on the back of a huge barge and lowered to the sea floor like a big garden hose as the barge moves south. And because it would be under the sea, the pipeline could be built of reinforced plastic instead of the concrete and steel that would be needed to withstand the rigors of a land route.

In addition, laying the pipeline offshore would sidestep most of the environmental and legal problems that have blocked many efforts to transport huge amounts of water over land and across various jurisdictions, he said.

Hickel has been promoting the idea ever since an even more ambitious plan to dam up many of the rivers across North America ran into economic and political difficulties in the 1960s. No one paid much attention to Hickel's proposal until the current drought.

The pipeline, however, would be designed to meet long-term water problems in the Southwest, not just the current drought. Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) has introduced legislation in Washington that would require a feasibility study of the proposal. His daughter, Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), has introduced a similar resolution in the state Legislature. And the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution sponsored by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in support of the studies.

Nobody knows what such a project would cost, although one expert estimated that it is in the "hundred-billion-dollar class." No one has built such a pipeline before, so it is not clear just how difficult the technological problems might be.

"You can do it technologically, but is it economically feasible?" asked Nathan W. Snyder, director of technology for the Ralph M. Parsons Co. of Pasadena and one of the world's leading experts on huge water projects. And even from an engineering standpoint, "there are a lot of problems associated with it," Snyder said.

Yet he said he could not rule it out.

Hickel envisions two pipelines, each 20 feet in diameter, running 2,000 miles from the west coast of Alaska to Southern California. Others interested in the idea see pipelines 36 feet wide or even larger. John Dracup, professor of civil engineering at UCLA, who believes the proposal is "technologically feasible," said the "economies of scale" would dictate the size of the project.

Hickel put it more simply.

First you decide how much water you need, and then you build a pipeline big enough to carry it.

The economic problem results from the relatively low value of water. "Water is cheaper than dirt," said a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District, so the pipeline would have to move a lot of water to generate enough revenue to pay for itself.

Hickel said Alaska would charge only a small fee for the water, about "a penny for 20 gallons, or whatever." Asked if that would mean significant revenue for his state, Hickel just chuckled. Assuming the pipeline moves 2 billion gallons a day, that would add up to $1 million a day for Alaska.

But the main cost would be in building the pipeline and moving the water from Alaska to California.

If the pipeline costs $100 billion and lasts about 30 years, the water it would deliver could cost at least as much as desalinated water, and that would make the project economically doubtful. If the cost could be brought down considerably, that margin would improve.

But nobody knows for sure what it would cost, or even if it could be done.

Asked what he thinks the pipeline would cost, Hickel said, "I never got into that."

The concept is basically "a very simple idea," said James Rockwell, Hickel's special projects aide.

"Think of the pipeline as a big garden hose," Rockwell said. "You plug it into a river here and then you plug it into L.A. down there.

"You build it off the back of a 1,000-foot barge in 300-foot sections," Rockwell said. "You fit them together on the barge, and then you lower it into the water.

"So the whole line is laying off the back of this barge, and a mile back it's resting on the ocean floor. You lay it down like a big hose," he said.

The water would come from reservoirs built near the mouth of one or more of Alaska's rivers. Thus the water would be captured just before it flows into the ocean, so no one in Alaska would have to give up water rights.

Once filled with fresh water, the pipeline would be lighter than the ocean's salt water and it would tend to float, so it would have to be anchored to the bottom.

But Parsons' Snyder sees problems with that idea.

The continental shelf beneath the Pacific "is not a nice, smooth sandy bed like a lot of people think," Snyder said. "There are some deep gorges, and if you put a pipe across one of those things you will crack it."

What if the pipe were to leak a little? Rockwell said it would simply mean that a little fresh water would escape into the ocean.

However, "the maintenance problems would be enormous," said Snyder. He envisions robotic submersibles and diving crews that would have to service the entire pipeline. Even a small crack could become a major problem because the water inside would be under considerable pressure.

The water probably would have to be pumped at the rate of five or six feet per second, and that would create pressure within the pipe of around 50 pounds per square inch.

"When you get a large pipe, the stresses get pretty big," said Snyder, who has worked on major pipeline projects around the world.

It would also take a lot of energy to pump the water south, possibly 1,000 megawatts, which is equivalent to that produced by a major nuclear power plant.

Rockwell agrees that the water would have to be pumped, but he said the energy required may not be as great as some believe because of something known as the "Coriolis effect." That is caused by the spin of the Earth, and some believe the water could be helped along by it. It is the same phenomenon that causes water to form a whirlpool as it swirls down a drain.

The water would be traveling in a southeasterly direction, and the Earth spins toward the west. Thus the Coriolis effect, according to theory, would cause the water to move down the pipeline as the pipeline itself moves west. Several experts said they doubted that would have much of an effect, but they said they would have to think about it a little more.

That is the sort of question that will have to be addressed in a feasibility study like the one sought by Roybal. Austin Hogan, an aide to Roybal, said the congressman got interested in the proposal after concluding that the idea "is not ridiculous."

"It's all off-the-shelf technology," Hogan said. He estimated that the feasibility study would cost about $200,000.

Hickel says he is not troubled by the chances that many will brand his idea as too ambitious.

"Hell, that's what they said about the (Trans Alaska) oil pipeline," he said.

But he quickly added: "We're not pushing it. If they have a water problem, I'm just giving them an idea of how they might solve it."

The proposal is ambitious, he said.

"You have to think big because the problem is big," he added. "You aren't going to solve it in a small way."

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