Ideas Abound For Slaking Western Thirst

SCIENTISTS at the University of Arizona have discovered water on Mars. And NASA announced it can recycle sweat into drinking water. Although they won't admit it, some folks in California are relieved. After six years of drought, even the ridiculous appears reasonable.

Many see Canada and Alaska as the next source for water. If money weren't an issue, large, lonely rivers might find their way south. The classic dinosaur of a project would distribute western Canada's water from New York to California through huge aqueducts, gulping electricity and flooding or damming everything along the way.

New dams would dwarf Hoover, 500-mile reservoirs would make Lake Powell look like a puddle, and the entire project would make the savings-and-loan scandal look like a good investment. Luckily, the water buffalo pushing this gargantuan act of hubris are an endangered species - their project would simply cost too much.

But Promethean engineers still imagine towing bags of water the size of football fields and even icebergs down to L.A. They float, don't they? Other exorbitant ideas are surviving the journey from midnight musings to politician's podium.

Gov. Walter Hickel of Alaska has proposed a 2,000-mile-long undersea pipe carrying Alaskan water to Southern California. "You've got a problem, and the Arctic has a lot of water," the governor told water policymakers in Los Angeles last year. "Wally's garden hose," as many call the plan, would cost $150 billion to run four 14-foot diameter plastic pipes down the coast of Canada, Washington, and Oregon. At a cost of $3,900 per acre-foot for 325,872 gallons (over 10 times the average price of $339 per acre -foot for drinking water in California), this Alaskan wetness would have to retail on Rodeo Drive.

Although cost may be a sensible yardstick by which to measure the feasibility of a Western water project, it is not prohibiting the most promoted panacea to the drought - desalination. Desalinated ocean water will cost Santa Barbara residents $1,900 per acre-foot. Despite attempts to employ solar energy, wave energy, and even ocean thermal energy, most proposals require large quantities of increasingly expensive electricity.

Fortunately, rich Santa Barbara appears to be almost alone in its taste for expensive water. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently recognized the astronomical cost and subsequently backed out of investment in a Baja California desalination plant.

So what isn't expensive? Martian irrigation need not be in jeopardy, nor should frantic water utility executives fear that they will be tapped for their perspiration. There is plenty of inexpensive water in California for present use, if only we use it more efficiently. Water efficiency (not conservation, which unfortunately reminds us of unflushed toilets, brown lawns, and ailing businesses, farms, and industries) can provide large supplies of water at $100 - $300 per acre-foot. Several opportunities:

* Municipal water efficiency. A program distributing water-efficient technologies (toilets, shower heads, faucet aerators) can deliver water at around $200 - $300 per acre-foot, one-eighth the cost of desalination. Managing outdoor watering and improving industrial and commercial use of water carries a similar price tag.

* Improved delivery systems. The Metropolitan Water District funds repairs and monitoring of the canals in the Imperial Irrigation District. In return, MWD receives the saved water. Providing 100,000 acre-feet a year (about the annual water use of Tucson, Ariz.) by 1994, the new supply costs MWD around $175 per acre-foot. Similar opportunities exist in other irrigation districts.

* Improved agricultural water use efficiency. Oregon has a law that allows farmers to sell the rights to saved water, giving them an incentive to improve irrigation efficiency. "Use it or sell it," as a doctrine, would provide enormous supplies at less that $200 per acre-foot.

Water efficiency is not glamorous and may not appeal to dreamers, who might note that no one has really calculated the cost of drilling 8,000 miles through the Earth to tap the Yangtze River in China. You would have gravity helping you for half the journey, and could heat the water for showers along the way.

Proposals like this may seem inspiring. They excite the dreamer inside us more than do canal liners, sprinkler timers, and high-efficiency toilets. Our egos may ask for engineering miracles, but our future and pocketbooks are screaming for water efficiency. So let's choose the best buys first and leave the Martians alone.

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