The Great Kansas Aqueduct: Solution or Folly from a Bygone Era?

The United States has long been known as a country willing to take gigantic risks in order to build innovative infrastructure for future generations. The Transcontinental Railroad vastly improved cross-country travel, paying for itself through an increase in trade and transport across generations. The Hoover Dam helped tame the mighty Colorado River – creating an ongoing water and energy supply to open up the West for expansion. In modern times, there remain plenty of challenges that could be solved by new infrastructure.

One potential project, though, sits above the rest in its potential to ignite the American public’s imagination: The Great Kansas Aqueduct. But is it worth it?

The State of Kansas once again finds itself in a drought. While individuals and families living in big cities may choose not to notice – continuing to take long showers, water their lawns, wash their cars – those in the Western half of the state that remain reliant on wells and agriculture are struggling to make ends meet in an economy built upon a reliable irrigation supply. Could the Great Kansas Aqueduct provide the solution?

In 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers released the Plains Ogallala Aquifer Regional Resources Study, which detailed for the first time (in any official capacity) the cost and opportunity related to the construction of a 360-mile concrete aqueduct beginning at the Missouri River in the Northeastern part of Kansas and ending in Utica – traveling nearly three-quarters of the way across the state. This aqueduct would deliver approximately 3.4 million acre-ft (AF) of water annually (1 acre-ft = 325,851 gallons) to parched farmers and communities. In turn, the canal would require 15 pumping stations in order to rise nearly 1,750 ft in altitude to reach its ultimate, Utica reservoir.

The cost? $18 billion up-front with an estimated $1 billion in annual ongoing expenses ($400 million in operational costs and $600 million in interest).
The costs are exorbitant – resulting in a $470/AF price of new water for farmers who, according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Agriculture, currently pay approximately $47/AF for off-farm purchased water. Can an agricultural industry with shrinking margins due to increased competition and international trade tariffs handle a 10x increase in water prices?

And yet, there remains something romantic about the Great Kansas Aqueduct. Arizona has its 336-mile Central Arizona Project; California has its 701-mile State Water Project; why shouldn’t Kansas have its Great Kansas Aqueduct? After all, as the Kansas Aqueduct Coalition has stated, “With sedimentation reducing water storage in the East, and the Ogallala being rapidly depleted in the West, Kansas stands to lose more than 37 percent of its water in 50 counties across the state by 2062, or an annual shortfall of 1.86 million acre-feet.”

Thirty-six years after this project was first conceived in full, though, shovels and backhoes remain in their sheds as the Ogallala aquifer drops nearly two feet per year in some counties due to groundwater over pumping. If groundwater withdrawals continue at current rates, most of southwest Kansas will exhaust its water reserves within 25 to 50 years. One tends to think that in times of yesteryear, individuals would have begun construction on this project in February of 1982, begging for forgiveness later. But the time of unbridled infrastructure construction has passed and Kansas continues to stress its water resources.

As one sits and considers the need for the Great Kansas Aqueduct, three questions come to mind: 1) does the Great Kansas Aqueduct solve a problem? Yes – it would increase water supplies for Western Kansas. 2) would it solve the problem for generations? Yes – it would likely be operational for decades. And 3) would it be cost-effective? Unfortunately, not. While the volume of water delivered to Western Kansas may increase, very few people would actually be able to afford it. In fact, the $18 billion estimated to build the Great Kansas Aqueduct does not even include the legal, economic, and ethical costs inherent to initiating eminent domain and forcibly removing people in the way of the canal off of their land.

In essence, the Great Kansas Aqueduct seems to be solely concerned with the supply side of the Kansas water equation, without consideration of market demand. Perhaps rather than digging a big canal, it’s high time the state of Kansas begins to better understand how to more efficiently use its existing water supplies. After all, as Jeff Danner has stated, “the economy of Kansas is highly dependent on perhaps the most water-inefficient agricultural system ever developed, growing corn to feed cows to produce beef. It requires a whopping 1,850 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef… compared to only 26 gallons for a pound of tomatoes.”.

Does the fact that the Great Kansas Aqueduct remains in the ideation stage represent a failure of imaginative thinking in the world of American infrastructure or the success of forward-thinking individuals that realize this infrastructure project can never be fully repaid by its customers? Maybe both, or maybe it is a third option. The fact that the Great Kansas Aqueduct remains a viable solution to many seems to simply be a symptom of our continuing to rely upon old ways of thinking for new problems. When people first began populating Western Kansas, they used surface water and natural rainfall to water their crops. After draining those surface waters, the next generation began to dramatically pump the Ogallala. Today, as the Ogallala declines dramatically, Kansas is simply looking for a new source of water supply that it can systematically deplete over the next 20 years. That can’t be the solution; after all, the United States has long been known as a country willing to take gigantic risks in order to build innovative infrastructure for future generations – but those risks cannot simply repeat the unsustainable mistakes of the past.

It’s time for Kansas to think bigger – to stop worrying about how much water was available five, 10, 50 years ago – and understand that this is the new normal.

It is incumbent upon all of us to realize that and begin to think of ways not just to seek additional supply, but to reduce demand and work together for a more productive, creative future. The time is now to develop a solution, and the Great Kansas Aqueduct is not it.

A Distributed Water Revolution

It is a common missive in today’s water industry that we have let our water infrastructure decay to a point of imminent failure. Nearly every article in industry magazines today features some allusion to the $250 billion to $1 trillion investment needed to maintain our access to clean, safe water for future generations. The explanations for this are many, ranging from historical under-investment, to a shift in funding streams, to a lack of adequate maintenance.

And yet, the solutions to our current problem of infrastructure failure cannot possibly be as simple as: spend more money. Why should we replace decades of mismanaged assets built by our grandparents’ generation with technology that could have been invented during our grandparents’ lifetimes? Has there ever been a time in modern history when rebuilding anything using the basic logic of 100 years previous has led to the best possible outcome for future generations? I can’t think of an adequate example.

Instead, what we in the water industry must begin to more actively develop is the most productive and resilient means to generate and distribute our water supplies. Like the fight that has been waged within the energy industry for the past two decades, the water industry is in desperate need of a ‘distributed revolution.’ This is not a call to strand trillions of dollars of water pipeline and treatment plant assets – it is a simple nudge to remember that just because we are doing something today does not mean that it can’t be evolved and modified to better fit our needs in the future. This will require innovative thinking within the highest reaches of government and private enterprise, and undoubtedly it comes with great risk to those who manage these assets. But it is also foolish to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on a metaphorical Band Aid for a problem that requires a far more profound transformation.

Rather than building centralized plants to generate and distribute our water resources, consumers must begin actively taking control of their water supplies. Rather than relying on a team of under-appreciated and overworked municipal water staff, we must develop localized and automated treatment systems that these individuals can tend to on an ‘as-needed’ basis. The technology to perform such a transition already exists, from modernized SCADA control systems, to point-source wastewater treatment for irrigation purposes, to atmospheric water generators that produce all of the drinking water families would ever need.

For those out there who claim the water industry is a generation away from the innovative technology needed to implement this distributed paradigm shift, I recommend you spend time at next year’s WEFTEC show walking the aisles and talking to the startups and early commercial products that will amaze even the most cynical amongst us. Transitioning to this model will provide greater assurance that our money is being spent with an eye towards becoming more resilient as we look around and see city upon city, from New Orleans to San Juan, with centralized water infrastructure in varying stages of disrepair.

There remains much yet to study in order to ensure that this distributed water transition is performed efficiently and economically. Many interests and concerns must, rightly, be included in this discussion if we look to follow certain assets and invest elsewhere. The point here is not to take resources or finances away from municipalities or municipal employees. Instead, the goal must be to work with water managers, communities and water entrepreneurs in order to ensure that we are using resources and existing expertise to best prepare for the future. Decreased flows to treatment plants will lead to decreased revenues and further stretching of maintenance budgets. But this is not a zero-sum game. If traditional revenues decrease as individuals invest on a distributed basis, municipalities must work to provide operations and maintenance services for these new resources. If budgets for water and wastewater operators are decreased, communities should be tasked with helping find opportunities to utilize the knowledge and expertise of these unsung heroes.

Paradigmatic shifts are never easy, but when stakeholders are engaged and encouraged to adopt new and innovative ways of thinking, they tend to do so readily. In turn, there is no doubt we can develop a new generation of water infrastructure and resources that are in line with our current capabilities as a society. That is the distributed generation that we need.