Don Gale: We can overcome the drought by learning from nature

Both humanity and nature have ways of moving water to where it is needed.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought conditions have left many shallow ponds dry as they lay dormant in hopes of once again being filled for the benefits of shorebirds at Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, near the new state prison.

One hundred years ago — little more than a lifetime — nature and the Colorado River conspired almost every spring to ravage soil, rocks, vegetation and anything else in the river’s path on its rapacious way to the Pacific Ocean. The river overran its banks to flood California’s Imperial Valley plus other low-lying ground in Arizona, Mexico and California. It filled those valleys with fertile mountain soil.

A few forward-thinking humans dreamed of taming the mighty Colorado River with a dam near Boulder Canyon. At the time, it was the most ambitious and most expensive public works project ever conceived – more ambitious and more expensive, relatively, than rocket trips to the moon half a century later.

Boulder Dam partially tamed the Colorado River, provided clean electric power to millions across the Southwest, enabled settlement or expansion of thousands of communities and made it possible to irrigate instead of flood the Imperial Valley. That valley now provides fruit and vegetables to virtually every U.S. citizen. Later, additional dams upstream helped nature serve the land and its human, animal and plant inhabitants. Their numbers and varieties multiplied

But recently, human beings made it difficult for nature to continue serving the land and its inhabitants. We poured so much carbon dioxide and other impurities into the atmosphere that nature can no longer efficiently move water from oceans to land. Weather patterns established over eons were disrupted by human miscalculation about atmospheric waste. And even if we stop all carbon dioxide emissions today (which we cannot do), it will take decades for existing impurities to evaporate.

That leaves nature and human beings — who are part of nature — with a challenge: How do we help repair some of the damage humans have done?

Nature redistributes water by evaporating it from oceans and other bodies of water, turning moisture into clouds, moving clouds over land and condensing moisture into rain or snow. As we did with the devastating seasonal rampage of the Colorado River, we can help nature compensate for climate change disruptions and destructive drought caused by humans. We can use nature’s own example to usefully redistribute life-sustaining ocean water.

We have the know-how and the tools to move water across mountains, just as nature does. And we certainly have abundant supplies of water as oceans rise. We know how to build pipelines of varying sizes to move water, oil and other materials. We know how to pump water up one side of a mountain and then use its descent to generate “green” electric power. We know how to turn the sun’s energy into abundant electric power.

We can use that power to operate the pumps only when the sun is shining, just as nature does. That way, we don’t need backup power for every kilowatt of power generated by solar panels. We can even use the sun’s power to purify ocean water with solar-powered evaporation, just as nature does. And while the cost of such processes may be high, it pales in comparison to other public projects such as highways, recreation and space travel.

We should begin by pumping ocean water to the Great Salt Lake and other bodies of water lacking outlets. That would require little or no water purification, as inland seas are saltier than the ocean. It would also provide nature more water surface area to transform into vapor, clouds, rain and snow.

In the near future, we can purify ocean water using nature’s method of turning water into clouds that rise naturally before condensing into water for the downhill rush. Such purified water could be used for irrigation in California, Mexico and elsewhere, thereby reducing demand on the Colorado and other rivers.

These technologies are not nearly as complicated as building highways or sending humans into space. But they would certainly solve many of the problems created by changing weather problems caused by human carelessness.

Don Gale.

Don Gale is a long-time Utah journalist. He has watched humans and nature cooperate for the benefit of both since Boulder Dam proved doubters wrong.