New analysis out on sending Mississippi River water to Southwest

As an environmental scientist, Roger Viadero had to scratch his head over news reports last summer of the thirsty demand in Palm Springs and Las Vegas, among other western cities, for water from the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.

The letters pages of the Palm Springs Desert Sun newspaper broke their own records for online traffic last June with readers’ proposals to siphon some 22 billion gallons of water per day from the Midwest. To solve the Southwest’s water crisis, the desert denizens wrote, a series of canals and reservoirs could pipe water from the flood-prone Mississippi River to the Colorado River, a supposed win-win for everyone.

Aqueducts, pipelines and open channels pumping water from Minnesota and thereabouts to drier climates could easily do the trick, according to the letter writers. “We could fill Lake Powell in less than a year with an aqueduct from (the) Mississippi River,” wrote a reader. “It’s about will,” wrote another.

The proposals provoked Viadero, a skeptic and board-certified environmental engineer, to take up their feasibility with his students at Western Illinois University, where he chairs the environmental science doctorate program from the school’s Moline campus, located along the Mississippi River near the state’s Iowa border.

“The idea we have this abundance of water, it’s just a fantasy,” said Viadero, director of the university’s Institute for Environmental Studies, pointing to severe drought and low Midwestern water levels in an interview Monday.

“We sent astronauts to the moon,” he added. “We didn’t send the moon to us. People say all kinds of things about what they heard on Facebook. … We’re trying to give them some tools to help people make decisions.”


Roger Viadero, chair of Western Illinois University’s Environmental Science Ph.D. Program (Courtesy of Western Illinois University)

On Oct. 17, he and two doctoral students — E. Dave Thomas and Samuel Babatunde — released a 21-page technical analysis of the “physical, economic and environmental magnitude” of potentially diverting trillions of gallons of water from the Mississippi River to the lower Colorado River.

They presented their white paper two days later at the Upper Mississippi River Conference, which was held in Moline, and hope to have it peer-reviewed and published in an academic journal.

“We noticed a lack of information that can be used by the public to weigh the practical aspects of these proposals,” wrote the scientists. “This has created a void that’s being filled by proposals that lack realistic goals, violate a number of physical laws, and convey a poor understanding of scale, among other issues.”

Their findings, in a nutshell?

“Time, space, ecology, finances, and politics aren’t on the side” of water diverters, they wrote.


The researchers noted there’s nothing hypothetical about the 20-plus years of drought that have plagued the Colorado River, which travels through seven U.S. states, provides drinking water for roughly 1-in-10 Americans and irrigates the vast majority of the nation’s winter vegetables.

Below Lake Powell in northern Arizona, the lower Colorado winds through Nevada, Arizona and California into Mexico, watering Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles and San Diego on its way.

In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave the possibility of diverting Mississippi River water westward serious consideration, calling it at the time a potential 30-year project. The Arizona state legislature petitioned Congress in 2021 to revisit the idea, and on June 26, a letter in the Desert Sun went viral for suggesting using the river water to replenish Lake Powell, a reservoir in Utah and Arizona, as well as Lake Mead, another drought-stricken reservoir in Nevada and Arizona.

Together, the two reservoirs are about 27 percent full, or some 13 trillion gallons short of capacity, and sinking fast.

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