On a recent trip to Chicago, I learned about the seven-year "big dig" engineering project in the 1890s that reversed the flow of the city's major river. Instead of carrying the waste from people and stockyards into Lake Michigan, where it contaminated the source of drinking water, the reversed river sent Lake Michigan pouring down tributaries of the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Imagine the dismay of citizens in downstream cities like St. Louis when their clear blue river turned, overnight, to a muddy brown color. The justice that prevailed at the time was one of "better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission." Efforts to sue Chicago were too late and went nowhere at the time. The damage was done.
So here we are now with the proposed controversial Keystone Pipeline project that will cut across the Midwest after seizing land by eminent domain to the dismay of people in Nebraska. Crude oil from Canada can find its way by pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The question in many minds is whether or not we need it at all. Gas and oil prices have plummeted.
One reason for these lower prices is explained by the cab driver I questioned when we jumped into a Toyota Camry Hybrid. Almost all cabs these days seem to be hybrids in Chicago, so I asked the older driver how his gas mileage had changed from the days when he presumably drove a full-sized Ford Crown Victoria. He said, "The Crown Vic used to cost me roughly $100 per day for gas. With the hybrid, I'm spending just $22 per day." With this arithmetic happening by degrees across the country, coupled with the vast amount of domestic drilling, it becomes harder and harder to rationalize that controversial pipeline.
If we need any pipelines, they should probably contain water from Canada rather than crude oil. Just last weekend, I got a taste of what California's future might bring. Midway through a round of golf at a country club in a northern Bay Area town, we walked into the clubhouse to find them canceling dinner, turning out the lights and closing the building at 3 in the afternoon. Why? Because they had run out of water. The water source for the area had been provided by a neighboring city's reservoir that was not being refurbished to meet the growing need. It needs to take a break from time to time to refill.
November's days to date have averaged 3 degrees warmer than normal so far this month, and that doesn't bode well for a rainy winter, according to meteorologists reporting on NPR. If this wasn't enough, the premise of the new movie, "Interstellar," is that an overheated planet can't produce the food we need to survive. The only hope is for Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey to discover another livable planet.
Hopefully, it's not as bad as all this. Water pipelines for long distances are feasible. Some of us may remember when Marin County, during the last drought, received much of its water through a pipe that took up one lane of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Beyond water pipelines there is the last-ditch solution of desalinization plants. Israel uses this approach successfully and that may offer a glimpse into the future for us.
These solutions may cost a lot of money, but money is cheap right now. The government can borrow for 30 years at record low rates and create massive economic benefits for us in our heavily populated, dry state. It may even make sense to pay more in taxes if creating fresh water protects our real estate values. The golf course community mentioned above is a case in point. Values of homes there are suddenly just question marks in the light of the current lack of water. So, I hate to think about all California real estate values if the drought spins out of control.
The bottom line here is that water and global warming problems have a far greater impact on our pocketbooks than anything involving a pipeline of crude oil, so it will be interesting in the months and years ahead to see which of these issues commands the most attention from lawmakers.