Piping Water to California

Bill Maher brought up an interesting idea on his Show last night. The idea of pumping water from the eastern United States to the Western. While politically Bill Maher often makes good satirical points, this technical problem is one that bears far more explanation than a satirical remark.

But it is a cool infrastructure idea. A big one, and one that America will likely never do due to the lack of will of current American society (which Maher mentioned and got right). But it is worth looking at. It is one of those grand ideas from an era we have seemed to have forgotten but could still live in. A time when we dig canals to connect oceans and lay thousands miles of pavement and tracks in less than a generation.

With this article we analytically breakdown the two main ways of getting water to California. And the ramifications of doing it.

A Water Pipeline

First of all, let's address a few of Mahers comments when comparing pumping oil to pumping water. According to the USDOT, a "modest pipeline" moves about 6.3 Million Gallons of Oil per day. A single person's uses about 2.5 gallons of oil per day. So a single pipeline can supply enough oil for 2.5 Million People.

A Single person uses, a minimum of 60 gallons of water per day. So you would need 25 times more pipelines to move water than to move oil. This shows the scale of the task to move water around.

The Energy to Move Water

Now, lets assume that that we just build bigger pipes to move the water. (And it would have to be pipes, since you can't get over the Rockies with an aquifer.)

Note. We are going to napkin calculate this. The actual values would be much different (but likely worse)

We are going to assume that the pipeline shoots straight across the country. Without rising more than 1 foot. (A Bit of a stretch. Since the continental divide is lowest at 4500 feet in New Mexico. But the great lakes are 567 ft. Depending on where you drop the straw it could almost be downhill to California. Again, giant grain of salt with this exercise )

California has 39.5 Million people in it. We are going to assume we need to send water to 30 million. (California still has lots of water on their own)

For 30 million people (60 gallons apiece minimum) That is 1.8 Billion gallons of water/day.

To Lift that water 1 foot would require 5.5 Megawatts of energy (We used conversion numbers from this paper to reach that number. Again we would like to iterate that this calculation is very "napkin." i.e. Not taking into account efficiency, actual height that the water would have to be lifted or actual time of pumping)

A 1,900 megawatt plant can power 1.9 Million homes. So a home uses 1000 watts of power. The power that was used to pump the water could have been used to power 55000 homes.

Right now California Imports 25% of its energy pumping water would only increase that. But 55000 homes out of 14.8 Million homes is really not a big change in energy consumption. (But again. If we have to raise that water 10 feet than the number changes to 550000 homes, so the details REALLY matter here)

Roughly speaking it might be feasible to ship water without a giant energy suck, but that has to be a perfect world.

Building the Pipe.

Let's assume we drop this straw into the Mississippi. You are looking at about 2000 miles of pipe. Oil Pipeline costs 2.9-13 million dollars per mile. And again 25 times as much pipe as a single oil line. So about 50,000 miles of oil pipe

If we assume that that pipeline costs $5 Million per mile, then the cost to build the pipeline would be 250 Billion Dollars. The interstate highway system cost 500 Billion

There is Not Enough Water

While the eastern United States has water right now. Fresh water is a very limited commodity in general. Right now it is a fixed pie that is not getting bigger.


While the pipe is neat idea. Big and Bold. It is kind of silly. The west coast is right up against the ocean. The only problem with the ocean is that it is salty.

Desalination can solve this problem theoretically. But it has a problem with scale and energy consumption as well.

The Largest desalination plant is producing water at a cost of $2014 per acre-foot. Or about $.006 per gallon. And it produces at least 43 million gallons of water per day.

That means that you would need about 30-40 more plants like it to provide the water needed for 30 million Californians.

Assuming they cost $300 million per plant. Then the cost to build the plants to get all the water from the ocean is around $12 Billion dollars.

$12 Billion with desalination. $250 Billion with pipes.

Here there is an energy question as well. Each desalination plant uses about as much power as our napkin perfect pipeline earlier. Enough power to power 27000 homes. So with 40 new plants, California would have to notably increase energy production. Which seems unlikely given that they recently closed their last nuclear power plant. (And we don't want to get into the numbers on how much ground you have to cover with solar to power these plants.)

But suffice it to say, the water problem is an energy problem, like most problems are. If California wants water they will have to create a lot more energy.

The Chinese Water Project.

This didn't really fit in with the rest of the article, outside of the fact that Maher mentioned it. But we wanted to address it.

Yes, China has a similar water problem. But it was not and is not solved with their infrastructure project. In fact that project has been plagued by problems and delays. And it is creating a political instability within the country. Polymatter did a deep dive on it we encourage you to watch.

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