Too wacky? Moving water from flood to drought

By Seth Borenstein

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 11 2011 9:55 p.m. MDT

Building a pipeline to pump water from flooded areas is foolish because each year it is somewhere different that gets drenched, so you can't build something permanent based on a couple of years' unusual rainy weather, NOAA's Halpert said.

For purely moving water, Gleick likes a smaller-scale concept: the trash bag. A California firm has designed Spragg Bags "with the world's strongest zippers" that haul millions of gallons of drinking water from one place to another over the ocean, said inventor Terry Spragg. It's been used in Greece.

When asked the cost to haul excess water by bag from the flooded Northeast to Texas, Spragg declined to say. "It just wouldn't be practical. It's just too distant... Forget about taking it from New Jersey or Pennsylvania, there are sources that are closer."

If you want to go high-tech for water, desalination — taking salt out of ocean water — and reusing wastewater for drinking water are cheaper and more realistic, said Gleick, author of the book "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water."

In Big Spring, Texas, they are looking at reusing wastewater by treating it and then adding it to the fresh water supply. Orange County, Calif., has a state-of-the-art water recycling program. And on the International Space Station astronauts use a system that turns their urine into drinkable water. Tampa has a new $158 million water desalination plant that can produce as much as 25 million gallons of water a day from the sea.

While those who need more water say the challenge is just a matter of balancing out too much and too little, other experts say there is a bigger problem: 1 billion people on Earth don't have clean drinking water.

"Absolutely there's a water crisis, but it means different things in different places," Gleick said. "In Africa, it's people dying because they don't have safe drinking water. In Texas, it means people at risk and property being damaged because there's a natural drought. In some places, it might mean not enough water to make semiconductors and grow food.

"Nature always distributes water unevenly — that's just the way it goes," Gleick said.

In the 20th century in the United States, the answer to water shortages was to drill another well, tap another aquifer, build more dams, divert more rivers and build pipelines, Gleick said. But now "we're running into limits."

Politics is almost as big a barrier as price. Legal battles over water run rampant in U.S. history, especially out West. But now they have gone nationwide, along with shortages. North Carolina has sued South Carolina, Florida has sued Georgia and Alabama, and the Great Lakes states have banded together to fend off water diversions, Glennon said. The Great Lakes region has been in and out of court over water rights for about a century.

"People are concerned about water rights. Even in eastern water-rich states, you don't want to be giving it away," said Robert Holmes, who deals with the problem of too much water. He is the national flood hazard coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.

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