I'm in the market for a free or inexpensive program that will help me create a graphic of water flowing through pipes (2D is OK, and preferred at this point). Would Blender be suitable for this, or would it be overkill in view of Blender's reportedly steep learning curve?
Yes it's possible to create a 2D graphic like this in Blender. Perhaps it's a bit much, but Blender is pretty easy to use for this kind of stuff. Here's an animation I whipped up in Blender of something like what I think you're describing:
Simply switch the render engine to cycles in a new scene, align the camera to front view (NUMPAD 1 and then ctrl-alt-NUMPAD 0) and add in shapes such as planes and make sure to use emission materials for everything. Use the displace modifier with a texture and keyframe the size values at frames 0 and 70 to be 0.25 and 0.7.