When the fire started on a Monday morning in early November, few people in Los Angeles were surprised. California was in its third year of drought, and that summer had been the driest yet. The hillsides were covered with thick, thirsty stands of oak and sumac, and the famously irritating Santa Ana winds were blowing hot and fast. The city fire department was well aware of the dangerous conditions, and at 8:15, when a brush fire was reported high on the northern slope of the Santa Monica Mountains, the firefighters mobilized.
The fire sped uphill to the ridgeline, leapt across Mulholland Drive, and spilled south toward Bel Air, tossing sparks and embers onto wood shake rooftops. Soon, the fire was moving at 13 acres a minute, and entire blocks of homes were burning. Firefighters bulldozed brush, dropped fire retardant from aerial tankers, and pumped water from backyard pools as actors, directors, and film executives tried to save their mansions. A movie star known for her work in thrillers climbed to her roof and fought the fire with a garden hose. More than 3,500 Bel Air residents were evacuated.
By the time the fire was controlled on Tuesday afternoon, it had destroyed almost 500 homes, damaged almost 200 more, and covered some 16,000 acres. It was the most disastrous wildfire Los Angeles had ever seen.
The pillars of smoke from the Bel Air fire were visible around the city, and as the firefighters struggled through the canyons, most people could simply watch and worry. But Ralph Parsons, the wealthy founder of a wildly successful international engineering firm, was trying to end the Southern California drought — forever.
It was 1961.
The solution Parsons devised, a continental-scale plumbing project called the North American Water and Power Alliance, or NAWAPA, was never built, but it’s never quite gone away, either. Today it persists as a fantastical vision that could have been, and might in some form still be.
“For those of us who work in the water world, NAWAPA is a constant presence,” says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute. "It’s the most grandiose water-engineering project ever conceived for North America. It's both a monument to the ingenuity of America and a monument to the folly of the 20th century. In a sense, we measure all other ideas against it.”
As journalist Marc Reisner observed in his book Cadillac Desert, the project had only two major drawbacks: It would destroy anything still resembling nature in western North America. And it might require taking Canada by force.
Ralph Parsons was not born to prosperity. The son of a Long Island fisherman, he was born in 1896 in Springs, New York, a town so isolated that its residents, known as Bonackers, spoke a distinctive dialect sprinkled with archaic English words. Parsons learned a love of tinkering on his family’s lobster boat and in his older brother’s garage shop. Though he dropped out of high school after less than a year, Parsons — slight and quiet, but tenacious — found his way to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he spent two years studying machine design.
After serving stateside in the Navy during World War I, Parsons got into the oil business. In 1934, he started his first company, specializing in the design and construction of oil refineries. A few years later, his second company was winning contracts for military and overseas development projects. From its Los Angeles headquarters, it designed a Navy missile-launch facility in California, an irrigation system for sugar-cane plantations in Taiwan, a refinery in Turkey, and a chemical plant in Louisiana. Parsons' engineers oversaw water projects in Pakistan, Thailand, Iraq and elsewhere.
By the 1960s, Ralph Parsons was entertaining his clients on a 190-foot-long yacht, the Argo, and maintaining a New York base in Waldorf Towers. The man who had once dreamed of hiring half a dozen engineers now employed 5,000 engineers and twice as many construction workers. His privately held company boasted nearly a billion dollars in business. When Turkish president Celal Bayar visited Los Angeles in 1954, he met personally with Parsons. When Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie came to town in 1967, he took a cruise on the Argo.
Parsons was an engineer at heart, however, and like all engineers he loved to solve problems. In the early 1960s, he encountered the problem that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.
While the Southern California drought fueled terrifying conflagrations in the Santa Monicas and elsewhere, severe drought in the Northeast strained water supplies in 11 states. Reservoirs and rivers dropped to record lows, a blimp bearing the words "SAVE WATER" sailed over New York City, and, in an inspired publicity stunt, Tiffany’s window designer replaced the water in its fountain display with gin. ("This is not New York's precious water. This is gin,” an elegant card reassured passersby.) Horrible floods in Illinois, Indiana and other states left thousands temporarily homeless and killed two young boys. North America had plenty of water, but it seemed to Parsons that nature was doing a lousy job of dealing it out.
A few years earlier, a planning engineer in Los Angeles had suggested that a large, interconnected system of dams and reservoirs could distribute water more evenly across the continent — easing both drought and flooding. Both the logic and ambition of the idea appealed to Parsons, and the water crises of the era convinced him that its time had come. He recruited a team of engineers from his own staff, and they spent several years and more than a million dollars turning the concept into a 250-page plan. Though the plan was stuffed with projections and caveats, its central warning — and central promise — was unconditional.
“Water is now our number one continental problem and must be solved on a continental scale,” it declared. “The North American Water and Power Alliance will take advantage of the geography and climatology of the North American Continent, utilizing the excess water of the high yield watersheds of the far northwestern land masses by distributing it to the water deficient areas of Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico in sufficient quantities to assure adequate water supplies [for] the next one hundred years or more.”
Ralph Parsons was intimately involved in the project, dedicating significant funds to promoting it, but, characteristically, he left its public promotion to others. In March 1964, when the company unveiled the NAWAPA plan, Parsons himself was silent. “The plan is daring and imaginative, but we feel it’s feasible,” the manager of the company’s water and power division told reporters.
In 1964, if engineers thought something was feasible, the public might have been inclined to believe them. Just a generation earlier, engineers had designed and built enormous dams across the Colorado and Columbia rivers, bringing water and electricity to places with little of either. Earlier, in January, engineers had unveiled designs for a pair of skyscrapers in lower Manhattan that, when completed, would be the tallest and second tallest in the world. Engineers were racing their Soviet counterparts to send the first man to the moon.
Even for those heady times, NAWAPA was a grand plan. It proposed to tap some of the continent’s largest rivers — including the Yukon in Alaska, and the Peace and Fraser in British Columbia — and store most of it in an enormous valley that runs the length of British Columbia, turning the much of the valley into a reservoir 500 miles long. (Lake Mead on the Colorado River, the largest reservoir in the United States, is 112 miles long when full.) A canal would carry fresh water from British Columbia 2,000 miles east to the Great Lakes, diluting their polluted waters and, not incidentally, opening a commercial waterway from Vancouver to Lake Superior. Other canals, tunnels, and pumps would send water from the reservoir in British Columbia to some of the driest regions of the United States and Mexico: the inland Pacific Northwest, the Great Basin, Southern California and the desert Southwest, and the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.
NAWAPA would require the construction of 369 individual dams, canals, pipelines, tunnels, and pumping stations. Its builders would have to move 32 billion cubic yards of earth and 30 million tons of steel. Its largest proposed dam would be 1,700 feet tall, more than twice the height of Hoover Dam (and far taller than any dam in the world today). Parsons and his staff estimated that the project would cost between $100 and $200 billion over 30 years — or, in today’s dollars, somewhere around $760 billion and $1.5 trillion.
Surely no more than that, as the plan blithely noted: “NAWAPA will require only larger applications of accepted design and current technology. Consequently, delays during design or excessive costs which might result from the need to develop new design techniques or perform research to prove design theories are not anticipated.”
The promised benefits were as staggering as the costs. Every year, NAWAPA would deliver 158 million acre-feet of water to the US, Canada, and Mexico — more than 10 times the annual flow of the Colorado River. It would turn the Southwest into an oasis, and the Great Basin into productive farmland. Power from its hydroelectric dams would boost U.S. electricity supplies. It would create “incalculable” economic benefit for decades. Its reservoirs would become tourist attractions.
Engineers and others in both Canada and the U.S. had proposed international water transfer projects before, and have done so since. But by any measure, NAWAPA was the most audacious.
Today, it’s easy to see NAWAPA as a grotesque manipulation of the landscape. But in 1964, when Ralph Parsons’ engineers proposed the project, the environmental movement was just beginning to gain national momentum; to many people, in fact, dams were an environmentally benign way to both produce power and turn unproductive deserts green. But the principal appeal of NAWAPA was its promise to tame, once and for all, a frustratingly unpredictable natural system.
Sen. Alan Bible, a Democrat from Nevada, called NAWAPA a “bold, grandiose, highly imaginative and awesome concept.” In an address to a group of Western dam-builders, irrigators, and other regional power brokers assembled in Las Vegas in the fall of 1964, he noted that the Parsons Company “has come up with the most ... far-sighted proposal that Americans have had the opportunity to ponder since the Louisiana Purchase.” Stewart Udall, the secretary of the interior at the time and a staunch conservationist, said of NAWAPA that he was “for this kind of thinking.”
Even more enthusiastic was Sen. Frank “Ted” Moss, a liberal Democrat from Utah. Nicknamed “the conscience of the Senate” by his colleagues, he championed nuclear disarmament, antipollution measures, and consumer safety. He campaigned successfully to ban tobacco advertisements on television and was an early sponsor of Medicaid. He sponsored legislation that established national parks and recreation areas, including Capitol Reef and Canyonlands in Utah. He also came from a state that owed its existence to dams and irrigation: When Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in the mid-1800s, they almost immediately broke ground on an irrigation canal, and during the next 20 years dug more than a thousand miles of canals to water their Great Basin farmland. For Moss, NAWAPA may have looked like a supersize version of the Utah miracle — big government at its best. The long-term regional water security it seemed to offer became, as he later said, “the matter closest to his heart.”
Moss led a special Senate subcommittee appointed to evaluate the NAWAPA proposal and produced a hefty and approving report on the idea in the fall of 1964. “The time has passed during which [the water] problem can be solved through traditionally local or piecemeal approaches,” he wrote in the report’s preface, closely echoing the NAWAPA plan. “The solution must be equal in magnitude to the problem.” A year later, he introduced a measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, that called for NAWAPA to be discussed by the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian organization focused on shared waters.
NAWAPA made national headlines in the U.S. and Canada, and many Canadians were outraged by the idea: Canadians have long been passionately protective of their abundant water, seeing it as not only an important natural resource but also part of their national identity. “As far as Canada is concerned, NAWAPA may as well be an old Indian word meaning ‘never-never,’” declared the Toronto Star. In June 1966, Gen. Andrew McNaughton, a Canadian war hero and a former chairman of the International Joint Commission, called NAWAPA a “monstrous proposal” during a debate with Frank Moss. “The promoters would displace Canadian sovereignty over the national waters of Canada, and substitute therefore a diabolic thesis that all waters of North America become a shared resource of which most will be drawn off for the benefit of the United States,” McNaughton said. (McNaughton, who died just a month after this outburst, was remembered by Moss as an “able and vigorous public figure.”)
Still, the Canadian reaction to NAWAPA was not wholly negative: Some entrepreneurs saw it as a huge financial opportunity, and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson said it had the potential to be “one of the most important developments in our history."
In the late 1960s, as the drought receded and the costs of the Vietnam War mounted, America’s appetite for massive national investments like NAWAPA ebbed. Ralph Parsons, undaunted, responded with novel cost-saving suggestions. In a 1968 letter to Moss, he wondered if something like Project Plowshare, the U.S. effort to find peaceful uses for nuclear explosives, could turbocharge NAWAPA: “One construction factor which could very drastically change both the design and economic bases is the prospect of using nuclear explosives to create deep artificial aquifers for both storage and transfer underground.”
While Parsons speculated about atomic backhoes, Roland “Bud” Kelly, the project’s chief engineer, was speaking to Rotary Clubs, engineering societies, and university classes. He sent brochures to high school and college students working on research papers, and patiently answered questions from the general public: No, NAWAPA was not expected to fill the Grand Canyon with water. No, the waterway from Alaska to the Great Lakes was not likely to be a good replacement for the Panama Canal. He thanked a retired engineer in El Paso who promised to “continue to keep this water project in our prayers,” and responded with gratitude to supportive newspaper publishers in Colorado and Washington state.
When the oil crisis of the 1970s revived interest in alternative energy, the Parsons Company relaunched the plan, hoping that NAWAPA’s moment had finally arrived. But after an initial spate of publicity, national interest faded once again, and Ralph Parsons’s death in 1974 left the vision without its quiet visionary. In 1978, Forbes described Kelly as scaling a “paper mountain” of NAWAPA blueprints at Parsons headquarters, preparing to march on Washington with yet another unsolicited proposal.
NAWAPA, Kelly once observed, was “10 percent engineering and 90 percent politics.” But after more than 15 years of diligent promotion, the plan remained zero percent built.
Today, the Parsons Corporation is headquartered just off Interstate 210 in Pasadena, in an octagonal building whose deeply inset windows make it resemble an oversize cheese grater. (A suspiciously Parsons-like building appeared as the “Lanley Institute” in an episode of The Simpsons.) Parsons continues to work on major domestic and international projects ranging from Chinese airports to Saudi Arabian oil fields to U.S. highway bridges. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. Defense Department awarded Parsons a $243 million contract to build 150 health centers in Iraq, but terminated the contract in 2006 after it was revealed that Parsons had spent most of the money and completed only six centers. The company weathered the scandal, and in 2014 its revenues exceeded $3 billion. Along with the nearby California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Parsons is a notable member of Pasadena’s geek axis.
Though the company is no longer promoting the NAWAPA plan, its external affairs staff granted me access to the company library and its cabinets of NAWAPA files. Ralph Parsons, by all accounts quiet and reserved in life, is something of an enigma in death: He had no children and gave few interviews. Neither his company’s files nor those of the philanthropic foundation that bears his name contain any personal reflections on NAWAPA. But his idea still speaks loudly.
During her first week at Parsons in 2008, Virginia Grebbien, the charismatic civil engineer who leads the company’s water division, got a call from a private citizen in Washington state. “You know, the drought is starting again in California, and I think Parsons should build NAWAPA,” she recalled the caller saying. Grebbien, who had never heard of the project, politely agreed, then hung up and started calling around within the organization: “What’s NAWAPA?” She quickly got an earful from company old-timers, some of whom were still devoted to the concept. She refers to them, affectionately, as “groupies.” (One of them, Bill Tappan, has since retired to Alaska, where he is actively but so far unsuccessfully promoting a downsized version of NAWAPA.)
“The project solved a problem, and I think that’s what continues to attract people to it,” Grebbien says. “Ralph Parsons looked at the map of North America and said, ‘The water’s in the wrong spot. So how can we move the water to the right spot?’ He didn’t look at just Los Angeles, or the Central Valley, or California. His solution was all-encompassing, and it was completely out of the box. That’s the kind of thing that gets engineers excited.”
NAWAPA was touted by various Parsons employees into the early 1990s, but by then it had also attracted the approving attention of the conspiracy-minded political activist Lyndon LaRouche. His small but fervent band of supporters continues to promote a version of it today. (Parsons representatives are quick to point out that the company neither has nor wants any connection to LaRouche.)
When NAWAPA was first proposed, the Parsons Company built a model of the project to display at its headquarters. On a 4-foot-high plastic topographic map of the continent, dams are represented with red plastic rings, stacked on northern rivers like bracelets on an arm. Pumping stations are lit in lavender, and the rivers themselves pulse with flashing blue and yellow lights, creating the illusion of movement. Mounted inside a hefty wooden cabinet, the model has the kitschy charm of an old-fashioned beer sign.
The day I visited Parsons, on an unseasonably hot day this past summer, the company librarian dusted off the model for my benefit, and all day long people stopped by to watch it whir. “We got it out of storage in time for the drought,” the librarian joked. Some of the Parsons employees remembered when the model was hung proudly in the hallway, and some had never seen it before. But all seemed delighted by it, and by the moxie it represented. “Oh,” a young woman said wistfully. “If only we could make it a reality.”
Today, there is no serious support for NAWAPA as Ralph Parsons envisioned it. Even those who are energized by its vision or wistful about its passing will acknowledge, when pressed, that the project would have caused huge environmental damage, that its cost estimates were excessively cheery, and that its politics would have been a lot more complex than forecast. And though the threat of wildfire in the Santa Monicas is even worse today than it was in 1961, no one, in recent memory, has suggested that we use nuclear warheads to excavate a few new reservoirs.
And yet: “NAWAPA is not dead, not by any means,” says Peter Gleick. “It’s not as though we’ve given up on the idea of big engineering solutions. There’s just a little more rational conversation about them.”
China has recently completed the second stage of work on a sprawling series of dams, tunnels, and canals called the South-North Water Diversion project, designed to carry water from the country’s wettest regions to its driest. It is already the largest and likely costliest water transfer project in the world; if its third and final stage is completed, it will move more than 36 million acre-feet of water each year — almost a third as much as NAWAPA would have. In western North America, the deepening drought has revived talk of building new pipelines, raising dams, and otherwise expanding the region’s already extensive water infrastructure.
“Our perspective is different now, our thinking is different, but that doesn’t mean that the [NAWAPA] approach doesn’t have, at some level, some merit,” says Patricia Mulroy, the former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Mulroy is a fierce advocate of Las Vegas and its water supply, and over the past 20 years she has negotiated major reforms of Colorado River management on the city’s behalf. But given the depth and duration of the current drought, and the predicted effects of climate change, she doubts such measures will suffice. She has long championed a $15 billion project that would pipe groundwater from rural eastern Nevada south to Las Vegas, and in recent years, she has repeatedly floated the idea of building a roughly 1,000-mile-long pipeline between the Mississippi River and the Colorado River Basin.
Though Mulroy is as dramatic and outspoken as Ralph Parsons was retiring, her arguments sound a lot like those that Parsons and his lieutenants used half a century ago: “If the West is growing drier and the Midwest is growing wetter, I see that as an opportunity,” she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2009.
There’s perhaps more resistance to such ideas than there used to be, especially in places that would be at the wrong end of a powerful straw. Farmers in eastern Nevada have opposed Mulroy’s groundwater-pumping project for years; the Midwest is not particularly excited about her scheme to ease their floods by drawing down the Mississippi. California Gov. Jerry Brown, who supported the so-called peripheral canal around the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta during his first stint as governor in the 1980s, is still trying to get a version of the project approved.
Last spring, after actor William Shatner announced a $30 billion Kickstarter campaign to fund the construction of a water pipeline from Seattle to California, he felt compelled to reassure a very ruffled Pacific Northwest: “Dearest Citizens of Seattle if you think I’m an idiot or evil enough to steal your much needed water; you don’t know me very well,” he tweeted four days after announcing his campaign.
But many of the comments on Shatner’s website sound very similar to those in the decades of handwritten letters sent to Parsons headquarters. “I commend you spearheading a practical solution to our water crisis,” one says. “Ignore the haters,” says another. “If an oil pipeline can be built from the Canadian border to the Gulf,” argues a third, "a water pipeline can be constructed from the Southern States or East Texas to California.”
There’s good reason to be concerned about drought, in California and elsewhere. Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine, may well have inspired the Pipeline Enterprise: Shatner, in his announcement, cited a Los Angeles Times column in which Famiglietti pointed out that California had only one year’s supply of water left in its reservoirs. The occasional wet year won’t help much; since much of the West’s water is stored in its mountain snowpack, rising average temperatures are likely to keep shrinking the region’s supply. And that’s just part of the problem, says Famiglietti. “We’re not just running out of water in the short term,” he says. “We’re running out of water in the long term, and it’s because of the disappearance of groundwater.”
In a paper published in June, Famiglietti and his colleagues reported that water levels in 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers have been dropping for at least a decade. These underground water “bank accounts,” as he likens them to, which California and other agriculture-intensive regions draw from in drought years, are in serious deficit. And while no one is sure when the savings will run out, Famiglietti estimates that the Central Valley’s groundwater will be gone in a matter of decades. It’s no wonder, really, that proposals to pipe water from the Mississippi, or tow giant plastic bags of water south from Alaska, get serious consideration.
The trouble is that for most of our history, we have seen hardware as the quick fix, as the simplest solution to our water problems. Laying pipe and pouring concrete is, in many ways, a lot simpler — and a lot more politically attractive — than changing human behavior with rules and incentives. But large new infrastructure projects have never been the easy answers they seem to be, and they’re even less so now. We know, from years of research and experience, that we tend to underestimate their costs and overestimate their benefits: The Danish economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg reports that 9 out of 10 so-called megaprojects are over budget, and most are behind schedule. (China’s South-North Water Diversion project is both.) Because megaprojects take so long to build, they are also especially vulnerable to “black swan events” — rare but consequential events such as natural disasters and stock-market crashes.
And climate change isn’t just altering the size of our water supplies. It’s making them less predictable, and more subject to weather extremes. In the future, the technology we use to deliver our water will have to function in a wider range of conditions — as an engineer might say, it will need more tolerance. Large, fixed pieces of water-moving and water-storing infrastructure don’t have a lot of tolerance. To count on them for drought relief is to play an increasingly risky game of chicken with the black swan.
Technology most certainly has a place in our water future. The dams and pipelines that fueled the growth of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix are still with us, and they’re not going anywhere soon. Desalination plants, though expensive, may eventually be needed to boost supplies of fresh water in coastal cities. Stormwater capture and water recycling technologies are in use and will probably expand. But Gleick, Famiglietti, and others argue that the cheapest, fastest, and most dependable response to a water crisis is to do more with less water — with the help of technology and without. This past summer, after Gov. Brown imposed mandatory restrictions on the state’s urban water districts, residential water use dropped by more than 30% compared to 2013, exceeding the state’s 25% reduction goal.
“I think the strategy is conservation and efficiency first, because it’s cheap, because it’s easy, and there’s still so much we can do to reduce both agricultural and urban use,” says Famiglietti. “With pipelines, there’s this sort of fantasy, this hope, that we can continue our lavish water lifestyle, and I don’t think we can. We can’t.”
Michelle Nijhuis writes about science and the environment for National Geographic and other publications. She is the co-editor of The Science Writers’ Handbook and a longtime contributing editor of High Country News.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.