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California drought: Can Captain Kirk save the West?

Actor William Shatner says he has a plan to help alleviate the four-year long drought that has plagued California and the Southwest.

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Actor William Shatner arrives to take part in a reading for the 21st Annual Simply Shakespeare Fundraiser in Los Angeles, May 9, 2011. Mr. Shatner has announced a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign to raise $30 billion to build a water pipeline from Seattle to California, which is battling a drought in its fourth year.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File

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William Shatner wants to boldly build what no man has built before.

The Canadian actor, best known for his portrayal of Capt. James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek television series, is planning to launch a $30-billion Kickstarter campaign to build an above-ground pipeline delivering water from rainy Seattle to Lake Mead.

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"I want $30 billion ... to build a pipeline like the Alaska pipeline. Say, from Seattle – a place where there's a lot of water. There's too much water," Mr. Shatner said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo's David Pogue. "How bad would it be to get a large, 4-foot pipeline, keep it aboveground – because if it leaks, you're irrigating!"

California, like much of the West and Southwest, has been in the grip of severe drought for the past four years, with little relief in sight. Despite the parched conditions, the state has continued to supply much of the United States' fruits and vegetables by supplementing meager surface water supplies with groundwater. In some areas the amount of water drawn from the water table is actually causing the ground to buckle and sink.

Finding a way to replenish Lake Mead, which has seen drought conditions for 14 years now, could alleviate the stress placed on groundwater supplies. As the largest reservoir in the country, Lake Mead supplies water to much of the drought-parched West and Southwest, including California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

"They tell us there's a year's supply of water left," Shatner told Mr. Pogue. "If it doesn't rain next year, what do 20 million people in the breadbasket of the world do?"

Shatner’s idea isn’t entirely new. Long-distance water transport has actually been around for 200 years. Boston entrepreneur Frederic Tudor made a fortune in the early 19th century shipping ice cut from New England ponds to the Caribbean, India, and Brazil. 

In 1991, Wally Hickel, then-governor of Alaska, proposed a similar pipeline that would carry Alaskan water to California underneath the Pacific Ocean. His plan was met with a certain degree of ridicule at the time. But with drought reaching near-crisis levels, even seemingly absurd ideas are worth a concerted look, says Rich Golb, former president of the Northern California Water Association, and now a Vancouver-based water consultant for PacificComm, LLC.

“California and the rest of the West are now at a point where they really can’t dismiss ideas that once would have been considered downright silly,” he says.

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At least one seemingly silly idea is getting some serious consideration. Entrepreneurs in Alaska have obtained contracts to transport 50 million gallons of water from Sitka Alaska to California. How the water will be transported has not yet been finalized, but one idea being floated involves large poly-fiber bags filled with water.

Still, Shatner’s plan is likely to remain a pipe dream given the enormous costs involved, says Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. 

“The energy costs of moving water that distance, over mountain ranges, would be considerable.” Mr. Lund says. “It would be less expensive to use less water, and probably less expensive to desalt seawater, than to build such a project.”

Even if financial barriers could be addressed, the project would likely run into significant environmental and political barriers, he adds. 

“One can only imagine the reactions of the people and governments of Washington State to such a proposal, the reactions of Oregon to having a project transit their state, and the many myriads of environmental regulations at state, federal, and local levels,” he says.

Then there’s the matter of whether or not Seattle is willing to give up its water. 

Washington State hasn’t experienced the same level of drought seen in California and the Southwest. But record-low snowpack prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to issue a drought emergency for nearly half the state last week.

“Much of the state is under a drought declaration,” David Postman, a Governor Inslee staffer, told a Washington state NBC affiliate."[A]s much as we’d like to help our neighbors in California, I think Washingtonians would want to first make sure we have enough water before sending any south through the Shatner Pipeline.”

Still, others are applauding Shatner for drawing attention to California’s plight.

“One should never bet against Captain Kirk,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles. “As he once put it: ‘You know if Spock were here, he’d say I was an irrational, illogical human being for going on a mission like that. Sounds like fun!’ ”