It's so ungodly hot in much of California right now that you can almost hear the sun sucking what's left of our reservoirs dry. But if a group of engineers and politicians would have had their way in 1964, the lower 48 would be swimming in water imported from the far North—all the way from Alaska.
Hear that, Angelenos? You could have been waist-deep in ice-cold Arctic glacial melt today.
Forget the Los Angeles Aqueduct's measly 400 miles of water-moving. A proposal called North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) planned to divert water from Alaska south through the Rocky Mountains to Montana, where it would be directed to the headwaters of major river systems like the Colorado River. In addition, some water would be used to refill the Ogallala Reservoir in the Midwest and a fully navigable waterway would connect Western Canada to the Great Lakes. The plan would move 120 million acre-feet of water annually up to 3000 miles away.
The ballsy plan was drawn up in 1964 by Parsons, an engineering firm in Anaheim, and studied by the US Army Corps of Engineers. And it gained some serious momentum with scientists and political figures. It was introduced to Congress where it was co-sponsored by one Robert F. Kennedy. And Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson named it "one of the most important developments in our history."
To sell their idea, Parsons made this video which attempts to make a disturbingly good case for why this plan made sense for America: Because relocating large quantities of water over vast distances can create electricity. Okay, a little bit of a logic disconnect there—you also have to use electricity to move the water in the first place; in this case over mountain ranges—but in the face of a looming energy crisis, that's how they won the favor of the nation.
Putting aside the costs—adjusted for inflation, it was estimated to be about the same as the entire Interstate Highway System—it was, in the end, protests from a nascent environmental movement about the extreme devastation that this would have wrought which brought about its demise. The hundreds of dams and power plants needed to complete the system would have basically eradicated the wildlife habitats of most of the rivers in Western Canada, Montana and Idaho, and the act of removing freshwater from Alaska could have had an irrevocable effect on the formation of Arctic ice. So even though this plan was proposed to prevent drought, if the U.S and Canada had indeed gone through with it, it may have exacerbated climate change.
The documentary "Cadillac Desert," based on the book by Marc Reisner, discusses the sheer audacity of the NAWAPA plan
In recent years, as California nears that date when our current system was supposed to run out of water, it's not surprising that the NAWAPA proposal has been revived. As recently as 2012 a plan called NAWAPA XXI was released which recommends updates to the original idea. Which doesn't actually seem that crazy anymore. China's South-North Water Transfer Project plans to divert 36 million acre-fee of the Yangtze River annually up to 716 miles to the drier northern part of the country. And that's in addition to the desalination plant Beijing is building that should be finished by 2019.