Rescue Great Salt Lake with seawater from the Pacific? Utah lawmakers consider it

Crazy idea? Maybe, but ‘big thinking’ — like a 700-mile pipeline — is what is needed in ‘dire times’ like these, lawmakers say.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The boat marina on Antelope Island is rendered inoperable as The Great Salt Lake continues to shrink as seen on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

“Dire times call for dire measures.”

That’s the thinking behind an idea under serious study by the Utah Legislature to pipe Pacific seawater more than 700 miles in a bid to reverse the Great Salt Lake’s decline.

The costs and impacts of such a project would be staggering, but it warrants consideration given the desperate state of Utah’s once vast terminal saline lake, according to lawmakers on the Water Development Commission. The lake fell to its lowest level in recorded history last year and is expected to continue its downward trend as the West remains stuck in the worst drought in the 1,200-year climatic record.

“You might say, ‘Well, that’s a crazy idea,’ but San Diego desalinizes now some of their water [from the ocean],” said Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, at the commission’s Tuesday meeting. “The U.S. Navy uses desalinization when they take a nuclear ship into a port where there’s been a hurricane in Third World countries and the infrastructure’s wiped out.”

At stake is not just an ecosystem critical to millions of migratory birds but also Utah’s air quality. Wind increasingly sends dust from the exposed playa over the state’s most populous region, putting at risk the health of countless people.

But from Albrecht’s perspective, Utah may not be able to afford to allow its precious freshwater to flow into the lake’s saline waters.

“Water’s going to become pretty valuable for drinking and sewer and irrigation,” he said. “We run pipelines all over this country full of gas and oil and whatever. We’re going to put a lot of money into the Great Salt Lake, not just what we put last year.”

The tens of millions Utah is spending on the lake’s recovery pales compared with the billions that would be required to build the pipeline and associated infrastructure and the millions more to operate it.

Imagine the proposed Lake Powell pipeline, times 10 or 20 in scope, climbing over California’s Coastal Range and Sierra Nevada and slinking clear across the Great Basin. Whether the pipeline is a “crazy idea” may be up for debate, but studying it as a way to rescue the Great Salt Lake is definitely a fool’s errand, environmentalists say.

A better option would be for Utah to figure out how to use less water, so more of the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers reach the lake, said Friends of Great Salt Lake Executive Director Lynn de Freitas. A pipeline would not only degrade the landscape it crosses but would also disrupt the terminal lake’s chemistry.

“Rather than bringing fresh water to a system already challenged by impacts from increased salinity concentrations, it would be bringing in even more salinity,” she wrote in a text. “What’s wrong with this picture? Rather, it would be more cost-effective and time better spent to revisit the proposed Bear River development, which [would] only exacerbate the effects of a mega drought and climate change on our Lake.”

The Pacific Ocean pipeline was among numerous study items the Water Development Commission voted to put on its official to-do list for the coming year. Others included metering residential water connections in rural Utah; examining the impacts of new groundwater wells on senior water rights holders; limiting releases from Utah dams; reusing treated wastewater; re-evaluating diversions from the Weber to the Provo river; and altering Utah’s representation on interstate compact regarding the Bear River, which Utah shares with Idaho and Wyoming.

Aside from putting septic effluent into Utah’s water supply, the Pacific pipeline is probably the most far-out item on the list. But it is still one worthy of study, according to commission co-chairman Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City.

Big thinking is was this is going to require. … It’s really an all-of-the-above option right now,” Ferry said. “We’ve got to be doing everything we can. It’s no silver bullet to the problem we find ourselves in, and it’s tough times are ahead.”

Co-chair Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, noted a seawater pipeline is under consideration to move water from the Mediterranean to Israel’s almost-dead Dead Sea.

“That’s what they’re contemplating to do in a lot of other places that have dead water seas that they’re able to bring water not as far as ours would be,” Hinkins said. “But once it gets over the Sierra Nevada mountains, it would generate power all the way.”

And gigawatts of controversy.