Brian Moench: Where will we get the water for all of Utah’s growth?

Inland port will only use up our water faster and lead to toxic dust storms in Salt Lake City.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Brian Moench speaks at a news conference by Stop the Polluting Port Coalition in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

One question should now dominate all discussions of growth, development and economic projects in Utah. Where will the water come from?

The new Utah Inland Port Authority Board held its first meeting on May 11. But “new” hardly means improved. Affected communities have no vote. There is no environmental voice or water expert for a project that could be the biggest new source of pollution and water consumption in the state’s recent history. Lessons that should be learned from other ports, historical mistakes, empirical evidence and common sense are still being ignored.

Let’s look in on the largest inland port in the country, Joliet, Illinois, and see what lessons Utah is not learning. Nearly 4% of U.S. domestic production, $735 billion worth of goods, flows through Joliet every year thanks to the explosive growth of online shopping, warehouses and the logistics industry. Utah’s developer-dominated Legislature would be drooling over getting a big piece of that action, but “drooling” requires moisture and moisture is what Utah doesn’t have.

Moisture is also disappearing in Joliet, and they aren’t even in a desert. In fact, the climate crisis is expected to increase Midwest precipitation. Nonetheless, Joliet will run out of water by 2030, thanks primarily to their gigantic port.

Joliet’s sea of warehouses, distribution centers and rail lines, exactly what our port cheerleaders fantasize for Utah, are draining their water resources. Last year, just five warehouse owners, with only 2% of the warehouses in Will County, used 20.5 million gallons of water. The situation is so dire that Joliet’s mayor is proposing a billion-dollar, 31-mile-long pipeline, siphoning water from Lake Michigan. Water bills in Joliet will skyrocket.

Lake Michigan will not come to Utah’s rescue. Our port will only exacerbate an already dire water shortage, dry up the Great Salt Lake further and add dust to the pollution brew from the port. But it is even worse than that.

Multiple Utah environmental and public health groups vigorously campaigned against, and eventually helped kill, the massive Snake Valley groundwater pumping extravaganza proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) over a decade ago. Our fear was that draining Great Basin aquifers would starve native vegetation of water, turn the Great Basin Desert into the Sahara Desert and become a massive new source of dust blowing over Utah. In an irony, now Utah politicians, through “satellite ports,” are pushing schemes that have the potential to create much of the same effect, including the siphoning of groundwater from Snake Valley and Spring Valley.

Cedar City aspires to be a “satellite port,” and to become one they would use water from the Pine Valley Water Supply Project (PVWSP) that will drain some of the same aquifers that SNWA was lusting over, with similar consequences as if the SNWA pipeline had been built. This scheme could drop ground water more than 5 feet in an area of the Great Basin covering 10,500 square miles, could eventually drop the level of the Great Salt Lake further, and expose more dry lake beds.

The Wasatch Front now has 10-15 significant dust storms a year. Fifteen years ago, we hardly had any. Like other pollution, the dust itself is a serious health hazard, but it is also loaded with neurotoxic heavy metals like mercury and arsenic.

It’s also deadly. Last July a sudden dust storm in Millard County created poor visibility on I-15 causing a 22-car pileup that killed eight and sent 10 to the hospital.

When dust drifts over Utah’s mountains, it settles on snowpack, accelerates the melt and diminishes our water bank. Human-caused dust coating the snowpack of the Colorado Rockies reduces the flow of the Colorado River by 5%. In Northern Utah, 90% of our dust comes from our expanding dry lake beds.

For years, the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition has warned about port pollution from more trucks, trains, planes and diesel port equipment. Add to that toxic potpourri more dust from unsustainable water consumption and a disappearing Great Salt Lake, made worse by an inland port. And the port’s gurus express no thought or plan to restrain its water consumption.

Where will the water for the port come from? Last year Gov. Spencer Cox asked us to pray to end the drought. That didn’t seem to work. Instead, I suggest praying to end the port.

Dr. Brian Moench | president, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.