Sometimes popular press and certainly the internet has a bias to apocalypse now approach to life. It is fun to see if they remotely make practical sense. One of these I was about Governor Brown’s California water rations to cut water usage in California. Somebody then wrote about draining the water out of the Great Lakes to feed California water.
Current treaties with Canada prohibit further diversion of Great Lakes Water. Lets pretend that is not true. Could water be brought economically from the Great Lakes to California to solve its water problems? Spoiler alert, the answer is no.
A cubic foot of fresh water weights 62.4 and contains 7.48 gallons. A tank car typically can handle up to 263,000 lbs of weight. So a tank car would ship approximately 4200 gallons.
A train load of 32 foot tanker cars would be 200 car loads, about a mile and quarter long. So a unit train could handle about 840,000 gallons. The average individual it is estimated uses 80 to 100 gallons a day, so lets use 90 gallons. This is enough water to cover 9,333 individuals. Water usage is suppose to be cut by 25%. So lets say the shipments just cover that. That is the population equivalent of 9,250,000. So that is 832,500,000 gallons of water, or 991 trains worth per day. The rail system is currently struggling with the current several hundred trains a day, so rail shipping would not make a significant dent in the water shortage.
But would it be economical? Rail rates are for the most part in secret contracts, but we can estimate the rail rate as 75% of the truck rate. A tank truck might go for $2.50 a mile from Chicago to Los Angeles. That is a distance of 2015 miles. At $2.50 a mile, that is a charge of $5037 which we will round to $5000. A tank truck would haul about 775 gallons. So the cost per gallon on a truck would be about $6.45 per gallon. Lets assume rail will be 75% of the truck rate, so the rail rate would be roughly $4.85 a gallon. Cost to desalt sea water is any where from $.22 to $.30 a gallon, assuming plant construction costs are factored in. So it does not make economic sense to ship water either.
So if it were legal, it would not make economic and rail capacity sense to ship large amounts of water from the midwest to the west. Supply Chain/logistics/transportation managers make these type of judgements all of the time. Unlike this fun little example, they would be wise to understand what they do would affect production costs and marketing initiatives, not just transportation costs.