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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


NAWAPA the "North American Water and Power Alliance" first proposed in the 1960s, when big engineering projects were technically far more difficult. That it has been languishing for 40 years says much about modern politics & the failure of ambition.

The North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) is a project for diverting to the western U.S. and northwestern Mexico water from rivers in Alaska and Canada which now flow into the Arctic Ocean. In addition to providing irrigation water to arid parts of North America NAWAPA would also generate considerable amounts of power and provide some subsidiary benefits such as stabilizing the level of the Great Lakes. The project was formulated by the Los Angeles engineering firm of Ralph M. Parsons Company and got some attention in Congress, particularly from Senator Frank Moss of Utah, but is not politically feasible.

In terms of engineering the project is feasible. A series of dams on the headwaters of the Yukon, Copper, Kootenay, Fraser, Peace, and Columbia Rivers can divert their flows into reservoirs. Included among these is the 500 mile long Rocky Mountain Trench, a natural formation which has 16 times the capacity of Lake Mead on the Colorado River. From the Rocky Mountain Trench the water would flow into Montana and central Idaho. The dams would generate electrical power but not all of it would be marketable. Some of the power would be required to pump the water over some mountains in Idaho to a canal where it would flow south along the border area of Utah and Nevada. Here the water flow would be divided into two branches. One would go southwest to Nevada, California, and northwestern Mexico. The other would go east to Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. This is the main element of the project. A subsidiary part would take water from the Peace River by canal to the Great Lakes and thereby link the prairie provinces of Canada with the St. Lawrence Seaway. Other subsidiary elements could link the system to the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver, British Columbia and link Lake Manitoba to the Hudson Bay.

As envisioned by the R. M. Parsons Co. the system would deliver 120 million acre-feet of water annually; 78 million to the U.S., 22 million to Canada, and 20 million to Mexico. According to Parsons this would enable Mexico to triple her irrigated acreage, irrigate an additional 40 million acres in the U.S. and 7 million in Canada. NAWAPA would generate 70 million kilowatts of power; 38 million for the U.S., 30 million for Canada and 2 million for Mexico. Parsons estimates that all this would cost $100 billion in 1964 dollars. In 1989 dollars that would be about $339 billion. The question is whether the project is economically justified.

Note - I have updated prices here from 1964 to 2008 $s according the consumer price index

Parsons estimates that about 85 percent of the water would be sold to agriculture at $26 per acre-foot and the other 15 percent to municipal and industrial users at $100 per acre-foot. That would result in annual benefits of $4.5 billion. The annual gross revenue from electrical power was estimated to be $16.3 billion dollars. Energy prices since 1964 have increased faster than general inflation.

The project is so immense that its construction might be spread over a thirty year period. Here is a reasonable estimate of the costs of the project by five year intervals.

Yr Water Revenue Power Revenue Other Revenue
-- (billion $) (billion $) (billion $)
1 -- 0.0 -------0.0 -------- 0.0
2 -- 7.5 -------36.7 ------- 0.0
3 -- 19.2 ----- 93.5 ------- 14.2
4-10 19.2 ----- 93.5 ------- 28.2

I have made no allowance that actual costs of engineering should have gone down compared to overall prices. Tunnelling costs have certainly gone down substantially because of modern high pressure machines. Considering that Norway has recently built over 750 km of road tunnels at between £3.5 milliion & £10.5 million I suspect a modern redesign would be even more extensive & less inhibited by the Rockies & tunnels obviously lose less from evaporation.

Looking at the map it would bring water to about half the US & makes the Boulder Dam during the Depression look small. The benefits for Mexico and Canada would be of a similar spectacular order. Canada would enjoy 58 million acre-feet of water and 38,000 additional megawatts of hydroelectric power, and the same kind of irrigation, transport, and clean water benefits accruing to the United States. In particular, the Northwest Passage route would be a vital aid in realizing the vast, untapped development potential of that largely wilderness nation.

“Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”
Jonathan Swift

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