Chapter 4

Aversion to Diversion (excerpt)

IT WAS ONE OF THE BOLDEST engineering schemes ever conceived on the face of the planet, and it called for replumbing much of the natural hydrology of North America. It started in the extreme Northwest—the wilds of Alaska—and marched methodically south through British Columbia before spanning across most of the continent. The plan’s western half envisioned harnessing some of the largest and wildest rivers in Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory, including the Copper, Susitna, Tanana, and Yukon. The Columbia and Fraser rivers would have been affected too.1 The idea was to divert part of the flows of these raging rivers into the mother of all reservoirs: the Rocky Mountain Trench, a giant natural canyon stretching through most of British Columbia.

Damming this canyon would create a surreal five-hundred-milelong inland sea, the waters of which could be sent to the rest of the continent as needed along with up to seventy thousand megawatts of surplus hydropower.2 Of course, the plan called for much of this diverted water to be sent to the American Southwest. The dry Canadian prairies would get a cut too. The system’s eastern branch would send water into the Peace River Valley of Alberta and on through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and western Ontario until it reached Lake Superior. This eastern arm of the system was referred to as the Canadian–Great Lakes Canal or the Alberta–Great Lakes Canal and would carry 40 million acre feet of water to Lake Superior annually.3 That’s enough water to raise the level of all five Great Lakes, double the hydropower output at Niagara Falls, and still have water to spare for the Mississippi River watershed.4

Such was the vision of NAWAPA—the North American Water and Power Alliance—and it was estimated to cost anywhere between $100 billion and $300 billion (in 1960s dollars).5 The project would have touched at least seven Canadian provinces or territories, thirty-three U.S. states, and a portion of northern Mexico (fig. 4.1).6 Widely promoted in the 1960s by the Ralph M. Parsons Company of Pasadena, California, NAWAPA would later be viewed by environmentalists (as well as by most Alaskans and Canadians) as the hydrologic anti-Christ. Though it never came close to being built, it was the envy of several water engineers who were looking for a way to outdo the massive subsidized water projects that had been built in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. These “welfare water” schemes came from a generation of men who believed that leaving water in its natural basin was somehow a missed economic opportunity.Water was meant to be moved and used where humans needed it most, rather than foolishly be permitted to flow into the sea. Behind their schemes lay a notable disregard for what these projects would do to the natural environment left behind by the displaced water. “NAWAPA, of course, is the granddaddy of them all—the most grandiose and the most ludicrous,” says water expert Peter Gleick. “Some people have described it as a water engineer’s wet dream—which is sort of a funny joke on all sorts of levels. It’s a ridiculous idea. But it was the logical extension of a whole series of somewhat less ridiculous ideas, like . . . the massive plumbing projects that we built in the West.”

NAWAPA seems bizarrely far-fetched today, but it had a number of influential supporters in the 1960s.7 Though it merely envisioned the Great Lakes as a connecting channel in a much larger scheme, it struck a chord among regional residents who wondered how long it would take for someone to concoct a similar plan that just happened to send Great Lakes water in the opposite direction. NAWAPA helped inspire a generation of far-flung Great Lakes diversion schemes—none of which made any economic sense. “Diverting Great Lakes water is financially stupid,” says Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator at Great Lakes United, in Buffalo, New York. “Even though it doesn’t make sense, the fact that people keep thinking about it just shows you the magnetic attraction of the water body.”

That history of desire has helped fuel the anti-diversion paranoia that remains rampant throughout the Great Lakes region. The anti-diversion movement hit its stride in the early 1980s when a string of diversion proposals prompted regional officials to push through a series of policies designed to keep Great Lakes water inside the Great Lakes Basin. Several of those measures continue to influence regional water policy, including the Great Lakes Charter of 1985 and the Water Resources Development Act of 1986. Each of these mechanisms heavily emphasized the legal sanctity of the Great Lakes Basin: the squiggly topographic line that rims the Great Lakes watershed like the edge of a soup bowl. Rain that falls inside that Basin line eventually finds its way to the Great Lakes, but rain that falls outside it ends up in the Mississippi, Atlantic, or Arctic watersheds. To the anti-diversion crowd, the edge of the Great Lakes Basin was the all-important line in the sand. Anyone residing outside that natural boundary or divide—even if they lived in a Great Lakes state or province—was not deserving of Great Lakes water...