THE BLOG
11/11/2013 03:17 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Circle of Blue

At the World Ocean Observatory we derive many topics of discussion and information from a number of news services, policy organizations, and research institutes that focus on the ocean and the impact of actions on natural resources worldwide. Opinions expressed in our blog posts and radio broadcasts are our own; we facilitate frequent discussions of fresh water issues such as drought, scarcity, patterns of consumption, proposed solutions, and both intended and unintended consequences. We define the ocean as beginning at the mountaintop and descending to the abyssal plain, an integrated system that has environmental, financial, political, and social connection that must be addressed if we are to ever protect such resources for the future.

One excellent source for such information is Circle of Blue, a collective of research scientists, journalists, communicators, policy analysts and activists organized to address the nexus of water, food, energy and the world's capacity to understand and respond to changing circumstances of diminished supply, increased demand, and inevitable impact on economic development, political stability, and public health. Timely reports of world conditions are available on their website, CircleofBlue.org, well worth your further investigation and interest to discover unexpected situations, insightful analyses, and innovative solutions.

Here is one such example: a recent revival by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of a 1982 study to ship billions of gallons of water 375 miles uphill from the Missouri River into central Kansas to irrigate wheat production, mining, and the cattle industry -- the so-called Kansas Aqueduct, a canal 137 feet wide and 7 feet deep designed to replenish an aquifer pumped nearly dry and the declining natural annual supply in the Ogallala River. In a report by Brett Walton of Circle of Blue (@waltonwater) the revival is described as part of a much larger movement worldwide of similar massive water schemes in the United States and abroad. Walton describes the declared local need for "water confidence," a reliable supply to support an infrastructure of farmers, grain elevators, equipment dealers, banks, and other associated services to a wheat, mining, and cattle industry that demands more than the available supply. According to the report, the 1982 study indicated that, "the Kansas Aqueduct would require at least sixteen pumping stations to lift the water nearly 1800 feet over its 375 mile course to the High Plains. The water would be drawn from wells drilled next to the Missouri River, and the aqueduct would be designed to divert water when the river is running swollen. As much as 1.3 trillion gallons could be moved each year." The original study estimated the construction cost then at US$ 3.6 billion with an annual operating cost of US$ 413 million. How much would it be now? And given the state of the federal budget, from where would the vastly increased funding come? Such is the focus of the Army Corps update.

Inevitably, there is political conflict inherent in the study's goals. Many local residents oppose the project, urging conservation rather than new supply, reducing consumption to a point that can sustain the aquifer over time. Surrounding states also have questions about the considerable volume of water that will be diverted from the Missouri River, itself a finite supply that has other comparable use and demand in other downstream communities. There are many more issues of equity, available financial resources and rates, purchase and appropriation, jurisdiction and management, and the true and full cost to all consumers, not just in central Kansas, but also throughout the vast multi-state Missouri and Mississippi River drainage systems.

As the water cycle changes and supplies decline due to changing weather patterns and growing population demand, such projects -- and their concurrent conflict -- will only increase. The Circle of Blue report cites other similarly massive transport projects worldwide: "Chinese authorities are evaluating a pipeline to desalinate seawater in the country's east and transport it thousands of kilometers to supply the coal and natural gas projects in the desert west. Two long pipelines in Mongolia are under evaluation to supply water from rivers in the country's north to mining regions in the South Gobi desert." In addition, there are other such proposals in Australia and India -- a long way from Kansas.

Water is the most valuable commodity on earth. And it circulates for our benefit, from ocean to atmosphere to land and down to the sea again -- what will it take to sustain for all our benefit this essential and miraculous "circle of blue?"