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One Drought Solution Is A Riddle: How Do You Make Water Run Uphill?


California's severe drought is inspiring some creative thinking. With farmland going dry in the Central Valley, water districts are proposing something that's never been tried during a drought. They want to move water uphill by reversing the state's main aqueduct. As Lauren Sommer reports from member station KQED, it'll take a serious engineering effort.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: I'm standing near Interstate 5, just outside of Kettleman City in the Central Valley, right where the California aqueduct crosses under it. It's this concrete canal that's kind of a ribbon of blue water. And it's really the main artery of California's entire water system. The 400 mile aqueduct connects northern California, where most of the rain and snow falls, to central and southern California, where most of the demand is.

It was built half a century ago when California engineered the huge network of reservoirs and canals that sustain everything from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to fruits and vegetables that are shipped across the country. President John F. Kennedy came to dedicate the system in 1962.


PRESIDENT JOHN F KENNEDY: This has brought your state to be the pioneer in the United States in the field of development and conservation of our natural resources. California and this area is number one.

SOMMER: The aqueduct was built to go in one direction - north to south - until now, that is.

JIM BECK: This is the year where I'm doing a lot of things I've never seen in my career.

SOMMER: Jim Beck is the general manager of the Kern County Water Agency which provides water to half a million acres of farmland in the Central Valley. His agency is proposing to run part of the California aqueduct backwards, something unheard of in any other year.

BECK: It really shows how desperate a situation we're in. Our water users are looking for any additional water they can find.

SOMMER: The aqueduct is the only water supply for some farmers. And because of the drought, it's expected to run dry this year. But there is water in the area that's been saved up for a year like this. There's a major reservoir in the southern Central Valley underneath this field of carrots.

HARRY STARKEY: We've got groundwater probably at about 175 feet.

SOMMER: Harry Starkey is the general manager of the West Kern Water District, one of the districts in the area that uses groundwater banking. That's where extra surface water from wet years is stored underground.

STARKEY: We just spread it out over the land, and it infiltrates at about a half a foot per day, generally.

SOMMER: That way, the water can be pumped out in dry years.

STARKEY: It's just like a bank. Everybody has their own little savings account here, and they have their name on it.

SOMMER: Water districts north of here aren't close enough to the ATM machine, so to speak. They're too far from the groundwater bank. That's where the California aqueduct comes in, says Kern County water manager, Jim Beck. Running it in diverse almost 50 miles would get this groundwater where it's needed - as much as 8 million gallons a day. That water would have to fight gravity because the aqueduct runs downhill.

BECK: The reason we can consider this is that the slope of the California Aqueduct is so gradual.

SOMMER: Up to a dozen diesel pumps, each the size of a large truck engine, would be installed temporarily. The project won't be cheap, costing up to $10 million. State water officials are looking at the potential impacts on other water users and will decide if the plan can move ahead by the end of the month. It's just one of the unusual ideas they're reviewing this year. With a drought as serious as this one, getting creative is more of a necessity than a choice. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.

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