Water is essential. Society collapses and life ceases without it. The Los Angeles Basin and surrounding areas receive enough annual precipitation to support perhaps 200,000 people. Unfortunately, this is less than half the population of the 43rd District by itself, let alone the rest of the region in which we live, the population of which exceeds 17 million people! Fortunately, visionaries such as Fred Eaton, William Mulholland and quite a few others set in motion engineering marvels that to this day bring us, and store, water from the Owens Valley, the Colorado River, and other regional sources. But, even the state's complex and varied water project is only so effective. When it does not rain and snow, we still find ourselves in difficult circumstances (see my Op-Ed). The bottom line we must perpetually face, then, is that much of the state is either a semi-arid or arid climate—and that will not change.

There are two ways to approach our state's dearth of water: demand-side and supply-side solutions.  Some recent demand-side policies now in effect to deal with drought are important: cutting usage through voluntary conservation (and, perhaps eventually, more stringent price rationing) and developing more climate-friendly landscapes that require little watering do much to preserve our water supply by reducing demand.

Other demand-side solutions such as recycling and conservation are vital and can work, but are only effective to a certain extent. They become ever-more constricting, and ever-less tenable, when supply cannot be increased by regional precipitation levels due to persistent and prolonged periods of drought.

On the other hand, supply-side solutions—when they can be feasibly implemented—will preserve California’s way of life far more effectively than will demand-side ideas alone. The growing severity of our present drought has certainly rekindled a few supply-side ideas. One such example is the recent resurrection of plans for a desalination plant in Santa Barbara. Desalination is a strategy with many benefits—provided a local community is willing to host a plant.

There are, however, significant costs associated with desalination—and they are not just monetary. For instance, desalination can present some environmental problems when it comes to intake and local sea life (there are technologies and strategies that can mitigate these concerns, but they do "up the cost"). Desalination plants also take up space along the coast, and stakeholders in the immediate area of a proposed site often balk at the notion of building such a plant in "their backyard." By now, however, Santa Barbarans have become just worried enough to accept desalination as a viable supply-side option after more than 20 years of the plan's dormancy.

To utilize the desalination strategy on any grander scale, however, we will need to be creative. One answer is a recently completed desalination plant in Melbourne, Australia, which is built into a hillside/bluff and is largely unseen from land.[1] Such methods could potentially be attractive for some locations here in Southern California.

Thus, while desalination is undoubtedly helpful, its potential is limited in solving the supply-side of the state's water woes. To truly overcome the shortcomings of our climate requires we pay even more attention to diversifying the supply-side of the water equation. But how?

There is another, potentially significant, answer we as a state could resurrect. Our neighbors to the north have almost inexhaustible amounts of fresh water—and much of it flows out to sea. Alaska, is one such neighbor—a neighbor that, in the recent past, has been willing to share. It would take negotiation and sheer ingenuity, but we should take them up on their offer and bring as much of that water here as possible.

My Policy Prescription: Revive and reevaluate the Alaska to California Fresh Water Pipeline Plan

As it was envisioned in 1992, after it was first suggested by the then Governor of Alaska, Walter Hickel, the Alaska to California Fresh Water Pipeline would “tap one or more of the rivers in southeast Alaska and divert approximately 4 million acre-feet of water annually” to California.[2] The most frequently mentioned rivers were the Stikine and Copper Rivers.

As one might expect, a substantial cost was predicted. Estimates established in 1992 by the United States Office of Technology Assessment (a congressional creation that was nixed as part of budget cuts in 2006, unfortunately) were as high as $110 billion ($187.1 billion in today's dollars) for the potentially more than 1,700-mile pipeline. However, interestingly, the price tag of the comparable Langeled Pipeline, an undersea natural gas pipeline between Norway and the UK (at 745-miles long, it is currently the longest undersea pipeline in the world, completed in 2006), was $2.8 billion. It was completed in three years, and also included the construction of an off-shore gas terminal facility.[3]  The cost estimate for an Alaska to California Fresh Water Pipeline is grounded in 1992 levels of engineering technology. The actual, demonstrated cost of the now extant Langeled Pipeline demonstrates the substantial advance of undersea pipeline technology. Its cost renders prior cost estimates irrelevant and likely inaccurate. The Alaska to California Fresh Water Pipeline, as a partial solution to California's water issues is ripe for reexamination.

Cost aside, were an Alaska to California Fresh Water Pipeline to be established, there is little risk environmentally in transit. A pipe leak would mean fresh water is leaking into the ocean, which is the antithesis of an environmental catastrophe…. However, other environmental risks have been suggested: The most prominent is the claim that there could be potential risk of species contamination as the water is transferred from the Alaskan ecosystem to California's. But, proven prevention technologies exist that stop invasive species from transferring from one ecosystem to another, which operate in places as diverse as the Suez Canal and the Great Lakes region. In general, there are three primary forms of such technology: First, there is a bubble curtain produced from the bottom of a river or lake bed to the surface; the second is a variation of the first, a bubble curtain enhanced by lights to further dissuade and confuse sea creatures swimming unwittingly toward a new ecosystem; and, lastly, an electrical current spanning a water way that increases in intensity the further a sea creature travels toward the crossing into another ecosystem, ultimately forcing the sea creature to turn back and remain in its own ecosystem.

Mr. Mario Paris, CEO of Canadianpond.ca Products, Ltd., in a recent e-mail exchange with me, expressed great interest in the Alaska to California Fresh Water Pipeline idea. He shed more light on these technologies as they relate specifically to the pipeline:

"The chances that invasive species from a cold water environment would move and migrate to a warm water environment are very slim, if any. The opposite is somewhat more likely as warm water species can adapt to cold water if need be, in particular with fish. Regardless, a bubble curtain can be an effective method to control some species--but maybe not them all. I would point to the Chicago Electric Dispersal Barrier that seems to work to prevent Asian Carps to enter the great lakes.


"The combination of bubble curtain, electrical field and sometimes other methods is sufficient it seems to control a known and identified problem, namely the [potential transfer of] Carp [in the case off the Chicago area]. Again, you will likely find very few species of invasive organisms in the Alaskan fresh water ways that will survive in California. That argument [against the pipeline] sounds a bit hollow compared to lack of water in my opinion.

"I would assume a proper bubble curtain would cost roughly $1 to $1.5 million to set in place and about $250,000 per year in operation. The electrical system I would think would be 4-6 times more expensive."

Given the cost of the Langeled Pipeline and Mr. Paris' input regarding invasive species, I believe that the investment in an Alaska to California Fresh Water Pipeline is worth serious reconsideration. Any lower-end cost estimates (in the singular billions of dollars) could potentially be financed by a state bond issue. Higher-end estimates would most likely take a combination of state and federal money (mostly federal), necessitating serious legwork by California's House and Senate officeholders at the federal level in conjunction with state officeholders.

But, the benefits of such a completed pipeline over the long-term would be undeniable for California and the nation. California is the largest state economy in the union. The stability of our agricultural industries and urban areas would gain is not only immeasurably immense, but would pay dividends long into the future.

Why not once again consider investing in an Alaska to California Fresh Water Pipeline as an additional, free-flowing and never-ending source of fresh water? Even when rain and snow are abundant (which is rare for California), such Alaskan water can be used for irrigation or be stored until we can store no more. If we have too much—GREAT! The water already flows out to sea. It could just flow from here, rather than Alaska, or intake can be closed until needed.

Thus, one of my goals would be to rekindle this plan, bringing stakeholders on board in our state, in Alaska and of course in the federal government, and seek to explore planning and funding options that would make sense for our state. Our need for water will never decrease to the point where we won't have to worry about it each year. Why not build a permanent, if partial, solution from which the entire state can benefit from now into perpetuity?

See my Op-Ed on water policy in California.

[1] For more information, visit https://www.aquasure.com.au/desalination-plant.

[2] See Congress of the United States Office of Technology Assessment 1992 report: Alaskan Water for California? The Subsea Pipeline Option.

[3] See http://www.industrytap.com/worlds-longest-under-water-gas-pipeline-1166km-giant-serpent/339 for more detail.

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