Updated: Jul 31
Sunday, July 31, 2022, Pioneer Press Front Page Article by Frederick Melo.
Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins intends to "fight like hell" to protect water resources for the county, state, and the midwest.
In all-too-sunny Southern California, residents of the popular Sonoran Desert city known as Palm Springs are roasting in the heat and worried about their water. With an eye toward future shortages, desert denizens have drawn up what they consider to be a logical proposal, which they’ve repeatedly promoted through the letters pages of their local newspaper, the Desert Sun.
Their solution to a looming, if uneven, water crisis? Sending in water from Minnesota and the Great Lakes or thereabouts.
“The West is dry. We didn’t plan well enough. We need Midwest water,” reads an online letters-to-the-editor headline from July 15.
“When floods hit the Midwest, the West helps pay,” reads another letter headline from July 17. “So give us some water.”
“Snowbirds winter in the desert, but balk at sharing water? Hypocrisy!” reads a July 19 headline.
“The U.S. went to the moon. Surely it can move water from Midwest to West,” reads yet another letter from July 12.
ISSUE DRIVING ONLINE TRAFFIC
Desert Sun executive editor Julie Makinen said she’s never seen so much traffic for a single letter, such as the one that drew nearly 75,000 page views on June 22 when a Las Vegas resident got the ball rolling by writing that Mississippi River water could be diverted to the Colorado River.
The problem prompting that supposed solution? A megadrought measured last year throughout Western states like California and Nevada and stretching as far as Montana and Texas is thought to be the worst of its kind in 1,200 years.
“(Environmental reporter) Janet Wilson’s article on federal officials floating drastic measures to stanch California’s water crisis was great,” wrote Bill Nichols, in a 99-word letter to the editor. “Instead of just conservation, what about a Tennessee Water Authority-like project to divert the Mississippi River and build a canal with reservoirs along the way, to pipe it into the Colorado River? Kill two birds with two stones — not so farfetched when you see the type of projects being built in the Middle East and China! It’s about will.”
“Talk about a great works project,” Nichols added, “and a fantastic way to usher in a new decade for the Southwest.”
Then, on June 30, a letter writer’s suggestion that “we could fill Lake Powell in less than a year with an aqueduct from (the) Mississippi River” got picked up by Google’s “Discover” feed, which automatically matches news items to users based on their interests.
Suddenly, that Desert Sun letter alone was drawing 465,000 online page views, a record for the newspaper, which has a paid daily circulation of 20,000 to 50,000 copies.
‘IT’S JUST BEEN INSANE’
“It just blew up,” said Makinen, noting it usually takes some effort to find scintillating fare for the letters pages. “It’s just been insane. I’ve been here four years, and we’ve never had this level of engagement.”
The last big letters page controversy, she said, involved a proposal last year to install a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe, pale legs in a billowing dress, in the center of Palm Springs.
The growing, some might say thirsty, demand for Mississippi River water hasn’t been met sitting down. Midwest snowbirds familiar with the newspaper, among other readers, also have written in, aghast at the prospect of pumping or trucking river water some 1,900 miles across country to some of the hottest, priciest and most overpopulated corners of the nation.
Several writers have expressed concern about the foreseeable environmental effects of water diversion dropping water tables, destroying wetlands, drying out farms and potentially changing weather patterns needed to support America’s breadbasket.
“Water from Midwest could bring invasive species,” warns a letter writer, already bracing for the aftermath of a hypothetical water corridor.
“I live in Red Wing, Minnesota,” begins a recent letter from reader Paul Cofell. “Recently I have noticed several letters to the editor in your publication that promoted taking water from the Mississippi River or the Great Lakes and diverting it to California via pipeline or aqueduct. I will save you some time by informing you that it is not going to happen because the local citizenry here doesn’t want you to have that water.”
Cofell added: “There are very, very many people living along the Mississippi River and around the Great Lakes that really, really don’t like California or Californians.” He also pointed to a period of time in California history when valley farmers near Los Angeles dynamited an aqueduct that was stealing their agua.
“We have plenty of dynamite in Minnesota,” Cofell wrote. “My advice to you is: Don’t Californicate the upper Midwest.”
PRECEDENT: A LAKEVILLE WATER TRAIN
This isn’t the first time that the question of water shortages throughout the U.S. has inspired proposals to borrow H2O from the Mississippi River.
In 2019, a Lakeville railroad company drew up plans to pump 500 million gallons of groundwater a year from a southeast Minnesota aquifer for shipping to the arid Southwest. Elected officials in Dakota County cried foul, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources quickly stepped in to assure residents the DNR sees “virtually no scenario” where the agency would grant a water appropriation permit for the project.
That proposal originated with Empire Building Investments, the real estate arm of Lakeville-based Progressive Rail.
Alarmed, the Dakota County Board of Commissioners voted to approve stronger water-control regulations in May 2020 and April 2021 that prohibit new wells using more than 50 million gallons of water a year for commercial or institutional water supplies. They exempted agricultural uses.
State and county officials have noted that Minnesota has its own challenges when it comes to keeping hydrated. The state was hit by widespread historic drought conditions last year, and parts of the state have begun slipping back into drought territory this summer.
“The reality is we anticipate water quantity issues of our own here in the next 10 to 15 years,” said Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins, pointing to the county’s 2019 water resources study. “With all 440,000 residents of Dakota County relying on either groundwater or water from the Mississippi as the source of their drinking water, I would fight like hell to protect our water resources and our residents.”
Atkins added: “I think the Palm Springs proponents of this half-baked idea have been out in the hot sun too long. I would remind them they live in a desert and urge them to look for a different way to keep their golf courses green.”
DNR: ‘MINNESOTA DOES NOT HAVE AN OVERABUNDANCE OF WATER’
In response to a reporter’s inquiry, the DNR issued an unsigned statement on Wednesday that, in somewhat more technical language, said roughly the same thing.
Through the DNR, the state is responsible for protecting public water supply up and down the river, waterborne transportation, agricultural production, fish habitat, migratory birds and recreation vital to the economy. All of that could be negatively impacted by siphoning millions of gallons of water away.
“More, generally, it is important to recognize that Minnesota does not inherently have an overabundance of water,” reads the DNR statement. “Last year’s drought that affected most of Minnesota is also a reminder of how even ‘the Land of 10,000 Lakes’ can quickly experience severe water shortage issues.”
Among the legal considerations, state law bars the DNR from issuing a water appropriation permit for more than 1 million gallons per year if the water will be sent more than 50 miles from the source and will be used for any purpose other than public water supply.
“When the water would be used exclusively for public water supply, Minnesota DNR is precluded from issuing a water appropriation permit if the water will be sent more than 100 miles from the point of appropriation,” according to the DNR. “This is far from the first time that people have suggested transporting water from the Midwest to arid Western states. Such proposals present a range of practical, legal and social challenges that have proven insurmountable in the past. … It is important to understand the context that makes such proposals both unwise and unlikely to come to fruition.”
DESERT ‘SURF PARKS’ AND A DISNEY LAGOON?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also issued a written statement last week indicating they can’t speculate on hypothetical proposals that they have not formally studied.
Still, Army Corps officials have privately acknowledged a host of potential issues, not the least of which is the question of inadvertently transporting endangered or invasive species from one part of the country to the other.
For Makinen, the Desert Sun editor, the war of words over water adds an amusing undertone to what’s otherwise a serious topic — the tension between widespread drought-like conditions and growing real estate development in and around tony Palm Springs.
Some 24 million people live in South California, making it the second-largest combined statistical area in the nation behind the New York City metro. And it’s hot. And getting hotter.
In March, the Desert Sun reported that across California, the average amount of water produced per customer was 66 gallons per day in January, but many areas in the Coachella Valley around Palm Springs were pumping nearly three times that amount.
And that was despite a plea by California Gov. Gavin Newsom last summer to reduce water usage by 15 percent. Newsom’s pleas didn’t go far in the area served by the Desert Water Agency, where water usage actually increased. Three Coachella Valley water agencies ranked among the state’s top five residential water users last winter, according to state data gleaned by the newspaper.
Instead of extreme conservation measures, more than one Palm Springs-area developer has proposed “surf parks,” where resort visitors and club members can practice surfing in wave pools overlooking the desert.
“Disney is building a huge new development here that is going to have a 24-acre lagoon,” Makinen said. “We have 100 golf courses here. Although this is a desert, and the state is under all these water restrictions, the local water agencies kind of treat this area like an island, where they’ve been reassuring people we’re not on the verge of running out of water.”