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New water management strategies are needed in the western United States. With mounting populations, over-tapped rivers, extended droughts, severely damaged aquatic ecosystems, and the likelihood of future impacts from climate change, water managers face increasing challenges in locating reliable water supplies.

Some western water managers are working to conserve and reuse water supplies. However, NRDC's research has revealed another trend. Some water managers and entrepreneurs are pursuing a growing number of proposals for long-distance water supply pipelines. Some of these projects are extremely large in scale and would stretch for hundreds of miles, raising a host of questions for water policymakers and the public.

The maps below show a number of the of the more prominent pipeline projects in the West. The first map includes existing pipelines, constructed over the past century. The second map represents proposed projects that are currently at different stages of development. These projects were selected to include the largest pipeline projects, as well as broad geographic representation.

Pipeline Projects in Operation

Most of these existing pipeline projects were built in conjunction with surface storage projects on major river systems. Those surface storage projects were expensive and often came at significant environmental cost. Nevertheless, they produced relatively reliable sources of water for pipelines and aqueducts to carry to distant users.

Projects "In the Pipeline"

  • Flaming Gorge Pipeline

    Flaming Gorge Pipeline

    • Water source: Colorado River
    • Annual deliveries: 250,000 acre-feet
    • Cost: $6 billion
    • Status: Conceptual
  • Lake Powell Pipeline

    Lake Powell Pipeline

    • Water source: Colorado River
    • Cost: $1 billion
    • Status: EIS in development
  • Yampa River Pumpback

    Yampa River Pumpback

    • Water source: Yampa River, a tributary of the Green and Colorado Rivers
    • Annual deliveries: 300,000 acre-feet
    • Cost: $3.2-3.9 billion
    • Status: Stalled, after completion of initial study.
  • Narrows Project

    Narrows Project

    • Water source: Price River, a tributary of the Green and Colorado Rivers
    • Annual deliveries: 5,400 acre-feet
    • Cost: $40.3 million
    • Status: Draft EIS issued in 2010
  • Southern Delivery System

    Southern Delivery System

    • Water source: Arkansas River
    • Annual deliveries: 52,900 acre-feet
    • Cost: $1 billion
    • Status: Under construction
  • Ute Lake

    Ute Lake

    • Water source: Canadian River
    • Annual deliveries: 16,450 acre-feet
    • Cost: $500 million
    • Status: FONSI issued 2011
  • Santa Fe-Pecos

    Santa Fe-Pecos

    • Water source: Pecos River
    • Annual deliveries: 6,600 acre-feet
    • Cost: NA
    • Status: Application denied by New Mexico State Engineer in 2011
  • Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas

    Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas

    • Water source: Groundwater in Eastern Nevada
    • Annual deliveries: 84,000 acre-feet
    • Cost: $3.5 billion
    • Status: DEIS issued in 2011
  • Cadiz Valley

    Cadiz Valley

    • Water source: Groundwater
    • Annual deliveries: 50,000 acre-feet
    • Cost: $277 million
    • Status: Draft EIR issued in 2011
  • Peripheral Canal

    Peripheral Canal

    • Water source: San Francisco Bay-Delta
    • Annual deliveries: Up to 5.9 million acre-feet
    • Cost: $12 billion or more, and additional costs for habitat restoration
    • Status: Draft EIS to be issued in late 2012
  • Weber Siphon

    Weber Siphon

    • Water source: Columbia River
    • Annual deliveries: 30,000 acre-feet
    • Cost: $48 million
    • Status: Under construction
    • Delivery Volume: 21,000 acre feet/year
  • Lewis and Clark Regional Water System

    Lewis and Clark Regional Water System

    • Water source: Groundwater adjacent to the Missouri River
    • Annual deliveries: 24,770 acre-feet
    • Cost: $430 million
    • Status: Under construction, completion expected in 2019
    • Potential impacts: Water users and fish species
  • Mississippi River

    Mississippi River

    • Water source: Mississippi River
    • Annual deliveries: Unknown
    • Cost: NA
    • Status: Conceptual
  • Northern Integrated Supply Project

    Northern Integrated Supply Project

    • Water source: Cache la Poudre River
    • Annual deliveries: 40,000 acre-feet
    • Cost: $490 million
    • Status: Draft EIS in development
  • Uvalde to San Antonio

    Uvalde to San Antonio

    • Water source: Groundwater from the Edwards Aquifer
    • Annual deliveries: 40,000 acre-feet
    • Cost: $250 million
    • Status: A state ban bars pipelines from the Edwards Aquifer

Most of these proposed pipeline projects do not include new surface storage facilities. This change is, to a large extent, the result of the far less abundant water sources that these projects propose to tap into. Together, this new generation of pipeline proposals represents a significant new phase in western water policy, presenting critical issues that must be closely examined before proposed projects are pursued further.

These key issues include: 1) sustainability of water sources, including potential environmental impacts, demands of existing water users, and likely impacts from climate change; 2) conflicts regarding transbasin diversions; 3) costs and potential alternatives, including water use efficiency; 4) energy use; and 5) the role of federal agencies.

Some proposed projects could have dramatic effects on the environment, on existing water users, on water rates, and on the reliability of water supplies for the communities that would be served by them.

For example, several of these proposed pipeline projects would divert water from the Colorado River. In its Colorado River Basin Study, the Bureau of Reclamation has determined that existing demand exceeds available water supply in the Colorado River Basin, and that climate change is likely to further reduce existing supplies over time. The Bureau's findings clearly demonstrate that there is no additional water available in the Colorado River Basin, suggesting that new large pipeline projects could fail to provide reliable long-term water supplies and could threaten the water supplies of other existing users who rely on the Colorado River.

last revised 2/21/2013

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