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Drought Idea: Pipe In Water From Alaska

March 25, 1991|LEE DYE | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

OK. So it sounds a little wild. But maybe, just maybe, it would work.

Alaska has more fresh water than any other place in North America. Southern California has a drought. So take 2 billion or 3 billion gallons of water out of some of Alaska's rivers each day and ship it down to Los Angeles through a giant plastic pipe lying on the bottom of the ocean.

"It can be done," said Walter Hickel, Alaska's governor, a man who carved his personal fortune out of the Alaskan economic wilderness and likes to dream of "world-scale projects."

And true to his entrepreneurial past, Hickel doesn't want to give the water to California. He wants to sell it, but at a reasonable price, of course.

The basic concept is fairly simple, and some experts said it might be technologically feasible. Others, however, say the feat--involving factors like the spin of the Earth--is considerably more complex and fraught with potential problems.

Beyond that, whether the pipeline would be worth what it would cost is an unanswered question.

Hickel believes the pipeline could be built on the back of a huge barge and lowered to the sea floor like a big garden hose as the barge moves south. And because it would be under the sea, the pipeline could be built of reinforced plastic instead of the concrete and steel that would be needed to withstand the rigors of a land route.

In addition, laying the pipeline offshore would sidestep most of the environmental and legal problems that have blocked many efforts to transport huge amounts of water over land and across various jurisdictions, he said.

Hickel has been promoting the idea ever since an even more ambitious plan to dam up many of the rivers across North America ran into economic and political difficulties in the 1960s. No one paid much attention to Hickel's proposal until the current drought.

The pipeline, however, would be designed to meet long-term water problems in the Southwest, not just the current drought. Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) has introduced legislation in Washington that would require a feasibility study of the proposal. His daughter, Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), has introduced a similar resolution in the state Legislature. And the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution sponsored by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in support of the studies.

Nobody knows what such a project would cost, although one expert estimated that it is in the "hundred-billion-dollar class." No one has built such a pipeline before, so it is not clear just how difficult the technological problems might be.

"You can do it technologically, but is it economically feasible?" asked Nathan W. Snyder, director of technology for the Ralph M. Parsons Co. of Pasadena and one of the world's leading experts on huge water projects. And even from an engineering standpoint, "there are a lot of problems associated with it," Snyder said.

Yet he said he could not rule it out.

Hickel envisions two pipelines, each 20 feet in diameter, running 2,000 miles from the west coast of Alaska to Southern California. Others interested in the idea see pipelines 36 feet wide or even larger. John Dracup, professor of civil engineering at UCLA, who believes the proposal is "technologically feasible," said the "economies of scale" would dictate the size of the project.

Hickel put it more simply.

First you decide how much water you need, and then you build a pipeline big enough to carry it.

The economic problem results from the relatively low value of water. "Water is cheaper than dirt," said a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District, so the pipeline would have to move a lot of water to generate enough revenue to pay for itself.

Hickel said Alaska would charge only a small fee for the water, about "a penny for 20 gallons, or whatever." Asked if that would mean significant revenue for his state, Hickel just chuckled. Assuming the pipeline moves 2 billion gallons a day, that would add up to $1 million a day for Alaska.

But the main cost would be in building the pipeline and moving the water from Alaska to California.

If the pipeline costs $100 billion and lasts about 30 years, the water it would deliver could cost at least as much as desalinated water, and that would make the project economically doubtful. If the cost could be brought down considerably, that margin would improve.

But nobody knows for sure what it would cost, or even if it could be done.

Asked what he thinks the pipeline would cost, Hickel said, "I never got into that."

The concept is basically "a very simple idea," said James Rockwell, Hickel's special projects aide.

"Think of the pipeline as a big garden hose," Rockwell said. "You plug it into a river here and then you plug it into L.A. down there.

"You build it off the back of a 1,000-foot barge in 300-foot sections," Rockwell said. "You fit them together on the barge, and then you lower it into the water.

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