About a year ago as reports were coming out about the flow shortages in the Colorado River and its potential effects downstream in Nevada, Arizona and California, I told my wife that I had a solution, and it was based upon my years of teaching Chinese history. Yes, Chinese history.
However, before I go there, reports are sounding the alarm that things have gotten terribly worse along the Colorado River. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, there is now a “Tier 2” shortage of water owing to the lower levels of the Colorado River. We’ve never been at Tier 2 before. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both fed by the Colorado River, are currently at 25% capacity. As such, their power generating capacity is 25 to 33%, way down from their potential of powering 7.5 million homes and businesses.
This magnificent river (I lived in Colorado for over 35 years) has for millennia supplied water to homes, businesses and farms downstream from the Rocky Mountains including places like Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles and the Imperial Valley of California. Climate deniers notwithstanding, the reality is that in this part of the West we are now facing the worst drought in almost 1,200 years. Currently, 99% of the state of California is in some stage of drought affecting tens of millions of people. And for the rest of America, the Imperial Valley feeds hundreds of millions of us.
As a result of this crisis, the federal government announced “urgent action,” which will result in cutbacks in the amount of water places like Nevada and Arizona can draw from the river.
According to the Arizona Republic, “Under the steps outlined Tuesday by the Bureau of Reclamation, Arizona will lose 592,000 acre-feet of its river allocation in 2023, which represents 21% of its usual delivery. That’s an increase of 80,000 acre-feet from the 2022 cuts. Nevada will give up 25,000 acre-feet, about 8% of its allocation, and Mexico’s share will be cut by 104,000 acre-feet, or 7% of its allocation. California will not lose any of its share under the blueprint released Tuesday.”
If the lakes reach what’s called “deadpool” status, these dams will lose the ability to generate power. If climate-change trends persist, then the only way to remedy this Tier 2 crisis is to reduce demand, which is what these new restrictions are intended to do. Tucson and Phoenix can’t continue to grow and drain the river and their water tables without some near-term catastrophic effect unless they somehow reduce demand.
So what does Chinese history have to do with any of this?
In the 6th century, during the Sui Dynasty, a Chinese emperor by the name of Yang Guang (his imperial name was Sui Huangdi), commissioned the building of a canal from northern China off the Huang Ho River (the Yellow River) south to Hangzhou along the Yangtze and Huai river valleys. It was a huge engineering project costing thousands of lives of slaves, prisoners and peasants and extended over 1,100 miles. Known to the Chinese as the Jing Hang or the Da Yuanhe, it is known in the west as the Chinese Grand Canal. I have passed by and over it on several occasions.
Its purpose was to connect the dry north of China with the rich agricultural south of China and the productive regions of the Yangtze River. Much later, as the canal was extended and improved during the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties, it also served political purposes to help unify China under the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty of Kublai Khan. Which brings me to the linkage of the Chinese Grand Canal with the water crisis in our Southwest, or a “not so modest proposal.”
Precipitation levels and floods in the eastern U.S. have increased as a consequence of climate change. The Mississippi River carries a reliable abundance of water. Acting as an antecedent, thousands of years after the Sui Dynasty’s Grand Canal, and a project less challenging than building our entire Interstate Highway System, would be an American Grand Canal connecting the Mississippi River (let’s say at Memphis, Tennessee) to the Colorado River (let’s say at Grand Junction, Colorado, or at Glen Canyon just above Hoover Dam).
As an advanced tactical and strategic strategy to secure the socio-economic future of America (in the grand scheme of things) such a canal makes sense. It’s not a strategy that should encourage Arizona’s lawn-growing neighborhoods to continue their profligate ways, but in terms of environmental justice this is a way of creating a kind of stasis between the environmental “water-haves “ and the “water have-nots” of America and to preserve our ability to feed future populations. It would be a worthy technological challenge for America to coalesce around, and a national jobs program like the 41,000 mile Interstate Highway System provided for the country in the last half of the 20th century, and a sense of purpose in meeting the global existential threat of what may be the biggest threat in the human history of this planet.
Here’s what I believe moves the needle on climate change. Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the House of Representatives, made famous the expression, “All politics is local.” Neighborhoods get blown over by increasingly fierce tornadic activity, wildfires destroy millions of acres across the U.S., heat domes dry up crops across the Southwest and Midwest, hurricanes and floods become more frequent and more devastating, and rivers like the Colorado go from full and robust to thin and inadequate. These things add up and afflict growing percentages of our population. All politics are indeed local and affected people move needles.
We need to face up to these climate-change challenges. Big challenges like the troubled Colorado River mean big opportunities for big things, like a Grand Canal (or a pipeline) across the heartland of America.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.