The Plan to Save Utah’s Great Salt Lake Involves a Big Pipe
A crazy-sounding idea—build a tube from the Pacific to bring water to Utah’s Great Salt Lake—raises a larger question: Are we willing to do absolutely anything to fight climate change?
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Out in Utah’s barren West Desert, past the hazardous-waste landfill and the military bombing range, on the far side of the Great Salt Lake, sits a silent, mysterious structure that will make a great ruin someday. Scratch that: it already is one.
The three-story industrial building was hastily erected in the late 1980s, at a cost of $60 million, to house a pumping station with an urgent task: to suck water out of the Great Salt Lake and spew it into the desert flats farther west. The lake was then at record-high levels, threatening to flood railway lines, interstate highways, and farmland. The pumps were in operation for about two years before nature took over and the lake receded on its own.
More than three decades later, the Great Salt Lake has the opposite problem—too little water. Twenty years into a once-in-a-millennium drought, exacerbated by the effects of climate change, the lake level has declined to record lows. Marinas have closed, migratory birds are struggling, and high winds whip up massive dust clouds.
In January, a group of scientists and environmentalists warned that what was once the largest lake in the West could disappear completely in as little as five years. “Examples from around the world show that saline lake loss triggers a long-term cycle of environmental, health, and economic suffering,” they wrote in a report. “We are in an all-hands-on-deck emergency.”
Translation: shit is getting real. How real? Even Republicans recognize that we have to do something to save the lake—that’s how real.
The Great Salt Lake crisis has spurred a novel and extreme idea: Why not build a pipeline to bring in water from the ocean to revive and replenish it?
The concept sounds like something dreamed up by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, but it seems to have originated with the Utah legislature’s powerful Water Development Commission, which placed the pipeline idea on its annual agenda last May. “There’s a lot of water in the ocean, and we have very little in the Great Salt Lake,” noted commission chair David Hinkins.
Environmentalists were urgently dismissive; the Salt Lake Tribune called it a “loony idea.” But the loony idea persisted. In December, President Biden signed a bill that will provide $5 million per year in federal money to study possible ways to resurrect the Great Salt Lake and dozens of other saline lakes in the West. One option is the aforementioned ocean pipeline. “We must do whatever is necessary to save [the Great Salt Lake],” said Utah senator Mitt Romney, who sponsored the bill.
Which raises an urgent question: What is going to be necessary to enable us to survive climate change? And how much of that are we actually willing to do?
“My oil and gas friends tell me we build oil and gas pipelines all the time,” Romney told me by phone, “and water is more important than that.”
But the water pipeline is a much bigger deal than an oil or gas pipeline.
The problem, or set of problems, is not only relevant to the American West. Other places are preparing to spend boatloads of money to mitigate the effects of further climate change. New York State has budgeted $52 billion to armor its pricey coastal real estate against rising sea levels and ever stronger storms. Israel is exploring ways to deliver water from the Mediterranean to its own dying saline lake, the Dead Sea. Scientists in the Netherlands and elsewhere are developing salt-tolerant potatoes and other food crops that are less reliant on fresh water.
To climate scientists, Great Salt Lake and its basin, including the greater Salt Lake City area and famous ski resorts like Park City and Snowbird, offer a perfect little case study in doomsday planning, because the region is a largely self-contained water system. Snow falls on the surrounding mountains in winter, accumulating into a high-elevation snowpack that can measure 20 feet deep. When the snow melts in late spring, the runoff flows down via creeks and rivers into Great Salt Lake, raising its water level. As the summer wears on, a great deal of that water evaporates, and the lake level goes back down. (The water leaches salts and minerals from the soil as it runs down from the mountains, but none of the water flows out to other places, or to the ocean, which is why the lake is salty.)