Lots of people laughed at Utah legislators earlier this year for suggesting that a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean could reverse the potentially catastrophic drying-up of the Great Salt Lake. But I wasn’t one of them. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Plus, I have to confess that I’d brainstormed the same idea myself. I ultimately dismissed it as unwise (especially upon learning about the ecological concerns raised by Utah State University professor Wayne Wurtsbaugh) but not before doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations about whether this idea might — to use a very non-environmentally friendly phrase — kill two birds with one stone.
Yes, piping in water from the Pacific Ocean could refill the Great Salt Lake. But could it also mitigate sea level rise caused by climate change?
Rising tides clearly pose a major risk. The latest IPCC scientific report says that global sea level rise, currently about an inch every 7 years (4 millimeters per year), has been accelerating. What the future holds depends on the amount of fossil fuels we burn and on potential instabilities in Antarctica’s ice sheets, but the IPCC say that by 2100 we should expect 2 to 6 feet of total sea level rise, with more to come thereafter. By 2300, “sea level rises greater than 15 meters [49 feet] cannot be ruled out with high emissions.”
How much of that sea level rise could be offset by piping ocean water into the Great Salt Lake? Well, the USGS says that the Great Salt Lake is now about 9 feet lower than average and that its extent has shrunk considerably since reaching a high in the 1980s of 3,300 square miles. Filling that area to a depth of about 2.5 meters would require about 20 billion cubic meters of water.
That’s a lot of water, but it’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to global sea level rise: you need almost 400 billion cubic meters of water to raise global sea levels by 1 millimeter. So, taking 20 billion cubic meters out of the Pacific Ocean will only offset about five days’ worth of current sea level rise.
Could we do more? Sure: we could pipe in enough water to fill ancient Lake Bonneville. That would use something like 10 trillion cubic meters of water, equal to about 1 inch (7 years’ worth) of global sea level rise. Of course, there would be some downsides to recreating ancient Lake Bonneville, notably that the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake would rise by almost 1,000 vertical feet, flooding cities from Logan to Provo as well as most of western Utah.
All joking aside, there are better ways to help the Great Salt Lake, such as water conservation, and we should pursue them.
There are better ways to tackle climate change, too. That’s why I’m part of a 2024 ballot measure campaign called Clean the Darn Air. The current iteration of our proposal would allocate $100 million annually for local air quality programs, $50 million for rural economic development, eliminate the state sales tax on groceries, and pay for it all with a modest carbon tax on the fossil fuels that contribute to local air pollution and global climate change. In short: Tax pollution instead of potatoes, and put the money that’s left over into cleaning the darn air.
You might laugh at us for trying to pass a carbon tax at the ballot in Utah. But we hope you’ll go to DarnAir.org and join us instead. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Yoram Bauman has a Ph.D. in economics and is one of the leaders of Clean The Darn Air (DarnAir.org). He makes a living doing stand-up comedy about economics; his most recent book is “The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change, Revised Edition.”