A bad idea that won't go away: Diverting the river

Outline of U.S. with Mississippi River, plus a pipeline splitting off the river to the Southwest

Though the Mississippi River is mighty, it's facing its own water level problems and doesn't have enough water to send to the Southwest. 

Despite its high environmental and economic costs, the literal "pipe dream" of diverting water from the Mississippi River to Arizona, Colorado and other dry states won't disappear. 

Recently, reporter Matt Haines of Voice for America (VOA) interviewed FMR Water Program Director Trevor Russell on this important topic, as Mississippi River mayors band together to prevent such a diversion.

The article is worth a read, but we also thought Trevor's full email interview with Matt was important for context on this bad idea that's sure to re-emerge. (Here's our last go-round on this topic.) We've included a lightly edited version below.


Matt Haines of VOA: What challenges would a river diversion proposal create for the river?

Trevor Russell of FMR: A short list of the most severe problems the diversion approach would create for the river include:

  • Reduced water flows would result in less sediment delivery to the Gulf Delta, further compromising land integrity in the region, and putting both natural and built environments at greater risk of storms and natural disasters.
  • A diversion project would move pollutants and aquatic invasive species from the Mississippi River to the Colorado River basin, exacerbating existing environmental challenges.
  • The lower Mississippi River frequently suffers from severe droughts that put a stranglehold on river commerce. Such low-flow events would only become more commonplace with diversion, compromising local and regional economic activity — including in upstream communities that rely on the river to transport products and materials.
  • Reduced water levels would amplify the frightening risks associated with saltwater intrusion and drinking water pollution in river communities in Louisiana, many of whom already face severe environmental justice challenges.

Luckily for the Mississippi River, recent research indicates that the diversion proposal faces insurmountable technical, financial, political, legal and logistical hurdles that make it implausible, if not impossible, to pursue.

Matt: Would a Mississippi River Compact [an agreement between riverfront states to reduce river pollution and band against diversion ... ] be helpful to the communities that depend on the river? Why or why not?

While the challenges facing a Mississippi River diversion strategy are insurmountable, there is still some utility to a Mississippi River compact that would protect the Mississippi River from such diversion attempts by providing a second layer of protection — a "belt-and-suspenders" approach. It might pay off in other ways, too.

First, securing the compact would bring states, local governments and tribes together under the spirit of more cooperative river management that might pay long-term dividends.

Secondly, the compact would create the legal protection against future diversion attempts needed to free Mississippi River advocates from this needless distraction.

Lastly, a compact would signal to Colorado River basin states that they need to look elsewhere for their water needs, allowing those communities to focus on real solutions.

Q: States out west are struggling with a lack of water. An ongoing mega-drought made worse by climate change and a growing demand for water has stressed the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for 40 million people across several states. Last year, for example, the Arizona governor signed a bill that would — among other things — investigate pumping flood waters from the Mississippi River to the Colorado River.
Can you see why plans like this appeal to states out west, and what are the potential pros and/or cons for states that depend on the Mississippi River? How do you balance these competing needs, and do you think a [compact between riverfront states to prevent diversion] could be an important tool for protecting communities that depend on the Mississippi River? Why or why not?

The unfortunate combination of climate change, unsustainable population growth, pursuit of water-intensive agricultural and industrial production, and faulty assumptions about the amount of water available in the Colorado River have created a major water supply crisis.

I empathize with Colorado River communities that are suffering from unsustainable water use. Still, the truth we’ve known for decades was always going to catch up with them whether they chose to accept it or not: the Colorado River was not going to be able to supply enough water forever.

Sometimes, tough love is the right love. Mississippi River diversion is a pipe dream (pun intended). Numerous real solutions for enhancing water supply include conservation, desalination, reuse and rainwater harvesting. ... No one benefits from false solutions.

Q: The Mississippi River has been dealing with drought-like conditions, leading to resource strain, including the recent threat of the Mississippi River salt wedge in Louisiana.
Is it important to be able to keep Mississippi River water on its natural course instead of sending some to the Colorado River? Why or why not? 

Our friends downriver have been dealing with drinking water crisis after crisis far too often. We recently published a conversation with our friend Matt Rota of Healthy Gulf on this subject.

Q: Some proponents of the Mississippi River Compact have said they hope any potential agreement will deal with water quality -- not just water quantity. With pollutants from upriver farms, for example, causing damage to water quality downriver and in the Gulf of Mexico, do you agree that water quality should be something the Mississippi River Compact addresses?
Is addressing water quality important, and what are some ways that the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico are being damaged by pollution and other factors?

Water quantity is one of many problems facing the river. After decades of neglect and mismanagement, our river suffers from water pollution, altered natural hydrology, lost river corridor habitat and the growing threat of destructive aquatic invasive species. There is a reason why the Mississippi River made the list of "America’s Most Endangered Rivers."

Other iconic water resources like the Great Lakes, Everglades and Chesapeake Bay benefit from a dedicated, holistic federal restoration program. We think it’s the Mississippi River’s turn.

That’s why we have been working with organizations throughout the river to urge Congress to enact the Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative (MRRRI) Act. If approved, MRRRI will authorize significant federal funding to improve water quality, restore habitat and natural systems, reduce aquatic invasive species, and build local resilience to natural disasters in and along the Mississippi River.

MRRRI funds will be available for projects and activities carried out by federal and state agencies, tribes, communities, and nongovernmental organizations.

MRRRI, paired with a compact to prevent water diversion, would be a game-changer for the river.

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