David Op’t Hof: We need new ways of dealing with water

Bring excess water from the East and desalinate water in the West.

(Brendan Bannon | The New York Times) Soren D’Lobita delivers groceries for people in need on Buffalo’s West Side, N.Y., on Dec. 26, 2022.

The nightly news has reported on the devastating snow that hit parts of the Northeast. Power outages, stranded motorists, disrupted air travel. At that point more than 30 people had died. No one can prevent such events, but snowplows, first responders and power companies have been busy cleaning up the mess. By now, there must be huge piles of snow all over the Northeast. What happens when that all melts? Will there be extensive flooding?

Out West, we have had a wetter winter than in recent years. While this season’s rain and snow will help our water situation, experts say it won’t end the drought.

How did we go in one year from limiting lawn watering to Lake Powell and Lake Meade draining? We are in a 22-year drought. Why weren’t alarm bells ringing 15 years ago? Aren’t there people elected by us to organize resources to deal with such systemic problems?

We need our elected representatives to get busy on a coordinated water response in which different parts of the country help each other with their water problems. For example, couldn’t the snow piling up in the East be loaded onto rail cars and shipped west to be dumped into the Great Salt Lake?

A national water pipeline could shift water from where there’s too much water to where there’s too little. Sounds far-fetched, but I imagine the massive scale of the Hoover Dam was far-fetched in 1930. What can our ingenuity accomplish in 2023?

Dams have been built around the country to control flooding and generate power. Maybe it’s time to resume that effort, creating catch basins or underground cisterns to catch the floodwaters of rivers that overflow regularly. The city of Tokyo, Japan, has a massive cistern under the city to do just that, with powerful pumps to send the water back out to the ocean.

I believe our water management system must include desalinization — taking the salt out of seawater to make it fresh. Isn’t the ocean where water ends up? We need to reclaim it. Desalinization has been too expensive to be widely adopted, but there are now desalinization buoys that use the up and down action of the ocean’s waves to create fresh water which is then pumped to shore.

Obviously, desalinization is not appropriate for Utah. But if California created water from the sea, then it wouldn’t need as much water from the Colorado River. Plus it would have more evaporation which would drift eastward to Utah and other water needy states, providing us with the rainfall that we need to build our snowpack every winter.

A recent article in the BYU Magazine took a comprehensive look at our drought and what to do about it. From that article, I learned that 80% of our water is used by agriculture. The author described numerous innovations that could cut water use while maintaining and even increasing production. It also described what Las Vegas has been doing for years to cut water use and recycle water.

Every city in the West should pass laws to do likewise. Municipalities should change building codes to outlaw lawns and require xeriscaping — using native plants to decorate the yard — in all new construction. Lawns make sense where there is plenty of rainfall, but not in the arid West.

We elect representatives to pass laws to deal with the problems in our complex society. Shouldn’t our water problem be one of the issues they are trying to solve? Let your elected representatives know that you want them to direct their efforts to solving real problems instead of wasting time on partisan bickering.

David Op't Hof

David Op’t Hof, Lehi, is a retired educator.