Given the billions of dollars it would cost, the hundreds of miles of ecosystems and properties that would be disrupted, the numerous federal and state permits and impact statements that would be required, the number of protests and hearings that would be involved, it is very unlikely that a plan to save the Great Salt Lake by building a 700-mile pipeline to bring water from the Pacific Ocean would ever actually come to pass.
But there is a downside to even considering such an idea. And that’s that holding out the prospect of such a dramatic move to save the lake would become the civil engineering version of vaporware.
Vaporware is a term used in the marketing of computers and electronic equipment describing a rumored, or even announced, new machine or operating system that will make all others obsolete. While waiting for it actually come onto the market, users defer purchasing any other upgrades or improvements, even affordable and practical ones, as they wait for the Next Big Thing to come on the market. Even if it never does.
So it is with the idea of a Pacific pipeline, now apparently being given serious consideration by some Utah legislators who also happen to be members of something called the Utah Water Development Commission.
The fact that it is called that, and not the Utah Water Conservation Commission, tells you a lot of what you need to know.
A giant pipeline, starting at the Pacific Ocean and proceeding up and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and down again to refill the rapidly diminishing Great Salt Lake. What could possibly go wrong?
Give our leaders some credit for understanding that we indeed have a problem. That is always the first step. Utah’s political class has an unfortunate habit of ignoring, if not outright denying, threats to our natural world, especially if dealing with them would cost money.
But even Utah politicians are acknowledging the truth. The Great Salt Lake is shrinking. Last year it fell to a historic low level, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t keep going down. In addition to losing its recreational and economic value, a desiccated lakebed will literally dry up and blow away, carrying all kinds of dust and toxic waste into the lungs of the million-plus people who live nearby.
The obvious answer to a shrinking lake is to put more water in it. But the water that would naturally flow that way, through the Bear and Jordan rivers, is on the decline, for two reasons. One is the megadrought that the Southwestern United States continues to suffer through. The other is increased draws of water from the Great Salt Lake’s tributaries used for drinking, irrigation, industry and all the other things that go up along with the size of the human population.
It’s because lawmakers don’t want to do nearly enough — or anything at all — to reduce the demand for water upstream of the lake that they have been scrambling around for some other alternative. They don’t really face up to the fact that Utahns use more water per-capita than just about any other state, and that 80% of our water consumption is for agriculture, much of that for alfalfa that is exported.
That’s when the idea of a ginormous pipeline from the Pacific sprang to life.
A multi-billion dollar pipeline, one that would disrupt various ecosystems along the way and draw large amounts of energy for pumping over the mountains. (Thought it might generate some electricity as it goes down again.) It might also bring changes in chemistry and invasive creatures that could be about as damaging to the Great Salt Lake’s ecological balance as the drought has been.
Waiting for a Pacific pipeline to come to the rescue of the Great Salt Lake threatens to discourage state and local officials and others concerned with our state’s water supply from taking any of a number of intermediate, yet more effective, steps to conserve water and let more of it flow into the terminal lake.
Such steps include going forward with a policy already rolled out by the Legislature, measuring amounts of untreated water — known as secondary water — that go to irrigate crops, lawns and golf courses.
We should move on from that, raising the cost of water, especially for irrigation, so that market signals will be useful in getting Utahns to realize how precious this resource is so we can use less of it. We can also stop the widespread practice of hiding some of the costs of our water delivery systems in our property tax bills. We can reexamine the way we manage water rights so that conserving water now doesn’t cost a rights-holder the ability to use more water later.
No one of these ideas — even the imagined massive pipeline — would solve our problems all by itself. That will take dozens of complementary approaches and widespread popular understanding of, and support for, the need and the practice of using less water. But a giant pipeline shouldn’t get credit for being a big idea. It should be seen as what it is, a pie-in-the-sky dream that threatens to obscure all the other things we can and should really be doing.