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The Forgotten Project That Could Have Saved America From Drought

The North American Water and Power Alliance was an audacious proposal to divert water to parched western states that would have cost hundreds of billions of dollars and pissed off Canada. But what if it had worked?

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.


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