Opinion: Mitt Romney can save the Great Salt Lake and the drought-stricken West

Only someone of Mr. Romney’s stature could accomplish such an ambitious task in the short time available before climate change makes it even more crucial.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mitt Romney wraps up a series of meetings with state lawmakers at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.

Mitt Romney has an opportunity to create a legacy for himself and his family by resolving the mega-drought that threatens Utah and other western states.

First, while he is still senator, he could bring together experts in the field of water resources. That may or may not include water conservation proponents. Conservation is, by definition, a short-term remedy. It saves water one year so it can be used the following year. Soon, growth and demand outpaces conservation. No one predicted gigantic demand for water and power from large computer centers.

There is plenty of water in the world. The problem is distribution — moving water from regions or periods of abundance to regions and periods of scarcity. In 1967, Utah Sen. Frank Moss published a book that identified areas of water abundance and suggested how excess water could be moved to areas of need such as the Colorado River Basin. Much has happened since 1967. We learned a great deal more about moving large quantities of liquid — water, oil and chemicals. We developed power sources from sunlight and wind — ideal for the interruptible power needs such as purifying and pumping water. We improved the quality and reduced the cost of water purification and desalination. According to a recent book titled “Water for All,” the cost of desalinating ocean water was reduced by one-third over the past 15 years. Ocean water now provides almost half the water used by Perth, Australia, a city of 2 million residents. Even so, more can be done to reduce costs of purifying and moving ocean water to remedy such vital needs as saving Great Salt Lake and protecting those who live near the lake from poison-laden dust.

Using abundant new information, Sen. Romney and his panel of experts could develop updated strategies for moving water in the drought-endangered West, keeping in mind that there are two ways to deal with water shortages. One is to bring additional water to the upper parts of a river basin. The other is to augment water supplies at consumption points. In the case of the Colorado River, consumption points are primarily agricultural areas in California and Arizona, areas that supply food to virtually every state in the nation.

Second, after he retires from the Senate next year, Mr. Romney could use his earned respect and his leadership skills to generate support from government, business and public opinion toward rational efforts to ease western drought. It will require building a system to move water from the ocean and other sources to such locations as the Imperial Valley, the Colorado Basin, Great Salt Lake and population centers in Arizona, Nevada and California — places where it can be used for sustainability, growth and environmental enhancement.

Sen. Romney has gained considerable respect as a man of integrity, intelligence and virtue. In a recent Romney biography, the author quotes President Joe Biden praising Romney: “He puts his principles and the good of the country over partisan politics and extremism. And that matters more than ever.”

Members of both political parties feel the same about Utah’s senator. So do representatives of business and other influential groups.

It’s true, of course, that storing and moving water can be expensive. Building Hoover Dam was the most expensive public works project ever attempted up until that time. It would not have happened if a Utah company had not formed a consortium of six large construction companies to tackle the project. Other water projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) were also expensive, requiring coordinated business, government and social efforts. However, the cost was repaid multiple times on multiple levels. The same will be true for projects to redistribute western water. (Sending rockets into distant space is even more costly.)

Only someone of Mr. Romney’s stature could accomplish such an ambitious task in the short time available before climate change makes it even more crucial. Resolving water issues in western America is both vital and practical. There is no better time to begin — and no one better positioned to lead the way than Mitt Romney.

Don Gale.

Don Gale, Ph.D., is a veteran Utah journalist.

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