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Can we send our flood waters out west?

Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

The other day I was listening to a podcast where the host discussed the benefits of desalinating sea water versus the idea of a national water grid for dealing with a parched, drought ridden western United States. The gist of the conversation was whether it was better to meet the water needs of our western states through purification of salt water or to begin building a nationwide water grid to move water from areas with a surplus to states in need of water. 

Some of those who promote desalination do so because they want to return rivers to their wild state. Removing dams and draining reservoirs, they say, benefits migratory spawners like salmon. These fish rely on having access to their ancestral spawning grounds to breed, access that can be blocked by dams on the rivers they call home. In addition to this, some species require clear, fast moving water for their eggs and offspring to survive and thrive. For these species, the reservoirs created by dams have a negative impact on their breeding opportunities even if fish ladders or other means are used to allow the fish to navigate around the dam. 

While I’m a great supporter of wild spaces, and in general like the idea of returning wild areas to their natural state, I’m also an eastern Kentuckian, born and raised. As such, I understand the impact of seasonal flooding. As climate change continues to lead to extreme weather events, the risk of flooding in our part of the country is only going to continue to grow – along with dryer weather out west. 

But what if we could take our flood waters and – before they jump the banks of the creek or river causing damage to homes, businesses, and roadways – move them to a part of the country that is suffering from drought? This is the idea behind a national water grid. In the plans for this future a huge infrastructure project would create connections from rivers and reservoirs in the east, like the Mississippi River, and move that water to waterways like the Colorado River, which suffer under a state of near constant drought. 

The downside is it requires that we not only maintain the system of dams and reservoirs we already have, but it may require us to create more reservoirs, to store and distribute the water as it is moved from one side of the nation to the other. The upside, though, could be the restoration of these western ecosystems with borrowed water, creating an environment that, given time, could contribute to the greening and cooling of the environment. There is also the fact that the water could not only be used to fight wildfires, but that the restoration of the ecosystem can help make wild areas more resistant to damage from wildfires in the first place. 

None of this even addresses the impact on agriculture, and the increased availability and lower cost of food. 

It would be a huge project, and not without its potential problems – particularly in Appalachia where a tradition of outsiders carrying away our natural resources and mineral wealth has led to justifiable skepticism about any plans to share our water wealth with others. But as extreme weather situations this winter and spring show, the region could really benefit from any plan that helps move extra water away from those who risk property damage or loss in a flood and toward those who could benefit from the water. 

It isn’t a perfect solution. But some studies show that the plan could pay for itself by alleviating just one major flood event east of the Mississippi River in a year. It’s definitely worth keeping in mind as the nation plans to move forward with new infrastructure spending. 

Jeremy D. Wells can be reached at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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