A German designed Pipeline


Water Pipelines


Britta Suppes suppesbj@uwec.edu


Part of Water is Life, a class website on water privatization and commodification, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2004.



    With diminishing water supplies and rapid human population growth, communities and countries are being prompted to investigate alternative water resources. Water pipelines have been a proposed, but controversial option. These massive pipelines pump water from a large source and transfer it across a great distance to areas in need. This webpage will investigate the positives and negatives of water pipelines, the conflicts they introduce, potential pipeline projects, and existing pipelines worldwide.


    Purpose of Water Pipelines

    The purpose of water pipelines is to transport surface water or groundwater from one area to another without causing erosion and reducing the chance of evaporation. Water pipelines are large in diameter and can supply water to communities and industries over both short and long distances. Pipelines can be installed underground or above ground. They can be used to bring in freshwater, or to transport and dispose of wastewater.

    Water pipeline installation


    Water Shortages: Pipelines as a solution?

    With the world population reaching 6 billion and counting, the need for water is growing. Only 2.4% of all water on Earth is freshwater, and less than 1% of all freshwater is available for human use. There is no question that water is absolutely necessary for human survival. However, over one billion people on Earth already do not have access to a clean water supply. With a growing population, this number will drastically increase, especially as we continue to abuse, pollute, and deplete our current supplies.

    Water pipelines provide a solution to areas lacking a continual and sustainable water source. These massive pipelines can transfer water quickly and effectively, avoiding evaporation which can occur in an open water transfer or diversion. With the incredible power of these pipelines, water can be extracted from deep within the earth through well pumping. Also, water can be directly taken from a surface water source. Water is transported through the pipelines with pumps and the natural force of gravity.

    In the not too distant future, arid lands that are rapidly being developed will not be able to sustain their people or their land use practices. With 65% of all water use going towards irrigation, even more water will be needed for irrigation as growing regional populations will require increased agricultural production. Areas such as the southwestern U.S. are facing huge water shortages as urban sprawl continues to encroach on the desert. Water pipelines could transfer water to these areas to increase sustainability.


    Water Pipeline Drawbacks

    Despite the need for water to be diverted through pipelines to different areas, there are several drawbacks that accompany water pipelines. First, the actual construction of a major water pipeline is extremely expensive. With manufacturing, labor, and installation, pipeline projects can cost billions of dollars. In addition, maintenance must be done every day in order to keep the pipeline working effectively. Pipelines need to be monitored continually and water quality must be constantly checked. Because of the great distances that major water pipelines can cover, maintenance fees are extreme. Las Vegas Valley Pipeline Installation

    The construction of water pipelines is also very taxing on the land. Thousands of miles of massive pipes can disrupt ecosystems, ruin scenery, and act as an obstruction. Underground pipelines require huge trenches to be dug, also disrupting the land.

    The most pressingconflict related to massive water pipelines concerns the source from which the water is being taken. Whether it be from an aquifer, a reservoir, or a watershed basin, the diverted water is being taken away from an ecosystem in which it is needed. The pumping of water out of these sources can cause severe damage, such as water level drawdowns, which can affect coastlines, aquatic life, plant life, and economic activity. The water replenishment rate is not fast enough to rejuvenate water sources that are being reduced through large-scale transfer.

    Legal conflict also arises in bulk water transfer proposals. The issues of water privatization is brought to a head: whose water is it anyways? What about waters on international borders? How can you own, buy, or sell a resource that is a human right and necessary for all life forms to survive?


    Potential Pipeline Projects

    The Great Lakes Basin

    The Great Lakes Basin is vast source of water, containing 20% of the world's surface freshwater, and 95% of U.S. surface freshwater. Pipelines have been discussed and proposed to share the water from this massive watershed to both nearby cities and suburbs, and also extending thousands of miles west and southwest. In the 1980's, there were proposals to pipe Great Lakes water to the southwest, but were dismissed due to the costliness, difficult logistics, and strong objections from Great Lake states. As water continues to be overused and depleted in the western and southwestern states through agricultural, industrial, and domestic uses, potential pipeline proposals are not out of the question. The lakes contain enough water to supply millions of people with water.


    In northeastern Wisconsin, Exxon's proposed Crandon Mine, one of North America's largest zinc and copper deposits, has spurred much controversy within the state, due to potential toxic waste production, disposal, and contamination. The region's groundwater, the Wolf River, and the Mole Lake Chippewa wild rice beds could all be polluted with toxic mining wastes. In 1995-98, a 40-mile wastewater pipeline was proposed to transport treated waste water from the Crandon Mine west to the Wisconsin River near Rhinelander. This plan was proposed by Exxon to cut costs because the Wisconsin River does not have as many regulations as the Wolf River. According to the governors of the Great Lakes states, this diversion of wastewater would have been violating federal law (Water Resource Development Act of 1986) by transferring water from the Great Lakes Basin into the Mississippi Watershed. This "interbasin transfer" would occur due to the large amount of water needed from the groundwater of the Wolf River Watershed to transport wastewater 40 miles to the Wisconsin River. This water transfer would continue for approximately 30 years, tampering with the natural division of water within these major watersheds. In 2003, the Crandon Mine was defeated by local residents.


    Current Water Pipeline Projects

    Libya Pipeline Map

    In Libya, a country dominated by the Sahara Desert, water is scarce. A large aquifer was found deep beneath the Sahara Desert, holding a volume of water almost equal to that of the Black Sea. With the growing population of Libya's coastal cities, the demand for fresh water is increasing. In 1983, the Great Man Made River Project was proposed to pump and divert water from the massive aquifer laying underneath the Libyan Sahara. The proposed project was to be the biggest underground pipeline network on earth, costing $27 billion, with some considering it the "8th wonder of the world." Over 1,300 wells have been drilled down into the large aquifer, some extending 500 meters (1641 feet) deep. Water is supplied to the coast over a network of 3,500 km (2174 miles) of pipeline. Over 5 million tons of cement was used to create the 75-ton pipeline sections. Besides maintenance and a few catastrophic pipeline bursts, the GMMRP has adequately brought water to the Libyan people. Construction continues to add on new legs of the pipeline network. The biggest problem is that the aquifer does not have a recharge source, and will eventually be completely exhausted. Libya Pipeline


    In southwestern South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, and northwestern Iowa, construction on a 400-mile water pipeline is about to be underway. The Lewis and Clark Rural Water System consists of five reservoirs and seven pump stations, supplying and delivering over 27.2 million gallons of water per day to communities within the tri-state area. The water will be extracted from a series of wells along the Missouri River and will supply over 200,000 people with high quality drinking water. The cost of this project is estimated at about $360 million and will take 10 to 12 years to complete. In a region that has struggled with water quality and availability problems due to shallow wells, drought, and aquifer contamination, this project is an exciting prospect. Pipeline construction will, however, cut across wetlands, farmlands, and private property within the three states, posing several environmental concerns. Also, wildlife groups are concerned with potentially loud noise levels created by well drilling and pumping.

    The Missouri River



For more information on this topic:

HDR: Lewis and Clark Rural Water System http://www.hdrinc.com/information/default.asp?PageID=1711&ParentID=2L15

Lewis and Clark Rural Water System http://www.lcrws.org/index.html

Wisconsin Resources Protection Council http://www.wrpc.net/reports.html

The Great Man Made River Project: http://www.gmrp.org/index_en.html:

The Great Lakes Directory: http://www.greatlakesdirectory.org

Canadian Environmental Law Association: http://www.cela.ca/Intervenor/23_2/23_2selling.htm

UNESCO: The Great Man Made River Project http://www.unesco.org/water/ihp/prizes/great_man/gmmrp.shtml

Barlow, Maude. Blue Gold: the Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World's Water. McLelland and Stewart, 2002.