Southwest Water Shortage Lets Loose Pipedreamers

Alaska-California water pipeline gets more than passing glance

ALASKA Gov. Walter Hickel is a man who considers no idea too big, as evidenced by his suggestion of building a railroad through the wilderness to Nome and dredging a deep-water port near Anchorage. California is a place where, if other Americans are to be believed, thought patterns don't run in normal grooves. So if you put Governor Hickel and California together, you're likely to get something either brilliant or bizarre.

Hence the scheme to send water from Alaska to California in a huge pipe along the ocean floor.

The idea has been put forward by Hickel and given enough currency in California and Washington, D.C., that politicians are talking about feasibility studies and a few engineers are doing calculations on notepads.

Boosters insist that, in these thirsty times, no idea that could keep the Southwest green should be dismissed willy-nilly and - maybe, just maybe - it is time for America to start thinking big again. Others would like to turn the tap off on this idea before it leaks out and hurts someone.

Grandiose water plans

This isn't the first time Alaska has been viewed as a giant Evian bottle for California. Schemes have existed to transport water down from the north by towing icebergs and laying dams and aqueducts across Canada.

Even the submarine-pipeline idea has been broached before, in the 1960s, by Hickel. The concept, however, never went much farther than table chat at water conferences. Until now.

The browning of California, as well as unbridled growth throughout the flint-dry American Southwest, has planners again mulling grandiose ideas to insure future water supplies.

The Hickel concept, as undefined as it is, calls for running one or two huge plastic pipes 1,700 miles from Alaska along the ocean bed to northern California, where it would tap into existing water systems at Shasta dam for transfer south. The fresh water would be collected at the mouth of Alaska's rivers before it flowed into the sea. The pipe, 20 to 30 feet in diameter, would be laid off the back of barges.

It sounds simple, but this is not like spooling out garden hose. Some sort of reservoir or dam system would have to be built to capture the water. Because fresh water is lighter than seawater, the pipeline would have to be buried or anchored to the ocean floor.

To survive wave action, some engineers suggest the aqueduct would have to sit on the continental shelf several hundred feet below the ocean surface, where it would be tough to maintain.

Nor is the continental shelf surfboard smooth; it is a moonscape of gorges and outcroppings. The US Bureau of Reclamation, in a 1975 study of an undersea aqueduct running from northern to southern California, said the project would require 53 miles of undersea tunnels and 20 fault-crossings.

Moving the water would also take a lot of power. Nathan Snyder, an expert on huge water projects at the Ralph M. Parsons Company in Pasadena, Calif., says it might require 1,000 megawatts, the equivalent of an average-size nuclear plant. Pumping stations, he says, would have to be located all along the pipeline, either under water or on land.

Despite the obstacles, a number of engineers believe it is technically possible. Tom Tidemanson, director of public works for Los Angeles County, goes so far as to say, ``I don't think there is any question that is is feasible.''

No one knows how much such a venture might cost, though Dr. Snyder, in back-of-the-envelope calculations, says it could be as much as $100 billion. It would be one of the largest public works projects on earth.

Consortium suggested

Hickel says a public-private consortium could build and run the pipeline. The project would be paid for by water purchases from California and perhaps Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico.

Guffaws abound. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club says it would be just as practical to ``import Perrier from France.'' Others believe it would be cheaper and easier to desalinate the sea. Many think California has enough water. It just needs to be managed wisely.

None of this has stopped the pipe dreaming. At a recent press conference here, Hickel and Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, another pipeline devotee, calmly answered queries from reporters playing reality cops.

Can it be done?

Hickel said he thought so and talked about the canals of ancient Rome and the Alaska Highway that was built in 18 months.

Should it be done?

In an Old Testament voice, Hickel said: ``Civilizations need big projects. When President Kennedy said let's go to the moon, he didn't say how do you design a rocket. He said let's go to the moon.''

Hahn called Hickel a ``visionary.'' At the end, he shook Hickel's hand. He said: ``This is good for 25 years of water.''

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