Site workers standing in a section of precast concrete pipe used for transporting water
Site workers standing in a section of precast concrete pipe used for transporting water
Site workers standing in a section of precast concrete pipe used for transporting water (Photo: Larry Lee/Getty)

The Plan to Save Utah’s Great Salt Lake Involves a Big Pipe

A crazy-sounding idea—build a tube from the Pacific to bring water to Utah’s Great Salt Lake—raises a larger question: Are we willing to do absolutely anything to fight climate change?

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Out in Utah’s barren West Desert, past the hazardous-waste landfill and the military bombing range, on the far side of the Great Salt Lake, sits a silent, mysterious structure that will make a great ruin someday. Scratch that: it already is one.

The three-story industrial building was hastily erected in the late 1980s, at a cost of $60 million, to house a pumping station with an urgent task: to suck water out of the Great Salt Lake and spew it into the desert flats farther west. The lake was then at record-high levels, threatening to flood railway lines, ­interstate highways, and farmland. The pumps were in operation for about two years before nature took over and the lake receded on its own.

More than three decades later, the Great Salt Lake has the opposite problem—too little water. Twenty years into a once-in-a-millennium drought, exacerbated by the ­effects of climate change, the lake level has declined to record lows. Marinas have closed, migratory birds are struggling, and high winds whip up massive dust clouds.

In January, a group of scientists and environmentalists warned that what was once the largest lake in the West could disappear completely in as little as five years. “Examples from around the world show that saline lake loss triggers a long-term cycle of environmental, health, and economic suffering,” they wrote in a report. “We are in an all-hands-on-deck emergency.”

Translation: shit is getting real. How real? Even Republicans recognize that we have to do something to save the lake—that’s how real.

The Great Salt Lake crisis has spurred a novel and extreme idea: Why not build a pipeline to bring in water from the ocean to revive and replenish it?

The concept sounds like something dreamed up by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, but it seems to have originated with the Utah legislature’s powerful Water Development Commission, which placed the pipeline idea on its annual agenda last May. “There’s a lot of water in the ocean, and we have very little in the Great Salt Lake,” noted commission chair David Hinkins.

Environmentalists were urgently dismissive; the Salt Lake Tribune called it a “loony idea.” But the loony idea persisted. In ­December, President Biden signed a bill that will provide $5 million per year in federal money to study possible ways to resurrect the Great Salt Lake and dozens of other saline lakes in the West. One option is the aforementioned ocean pipeline. “We must do whatever is necessary to save [the Great Salt Lake],” said Utah senator Mitt Romney, who sponsored the bill.

Which raises an urgent question:  What is going to be necessary to enable us to survive climate change? And how much of that are we actually  willing to do?

“My oil and gas friends tell me we build oil and gas pipelines all the time,” Romney told me by phone, “and water is more important than that.”

But the water pipeline is a much bigger deal than an oil or gas pipeline.

The problem, or set of problems, is not only relevant to the American West. Other places are preparing to spend boatloads of money to mitigate the effects of further climate change. New York State has budgeted $52 billion to armor its pricey coastal real estate against rising sea levels and ever stronger storms. Israel is exploring ways to deliver water from the Mediterranean to its own dying saline lake, the Dead Sea. Scientists in the Netherlands and elsewhere are developing salt-tolerant potatoes and other food crops that are less reliant on fresh water.

To climate scientists, Great Salt Lake and its basin, including the greater Salt Lake City area and famous ski resorts like Park City and Snowbird, offer a perfect little case study in doomsday planning, because the region is a largely self-contained water system. Snow falls on the surrounding mountains in winter, accumulating into a high-elevation snowpack that can measure 20 feet deep. When the snow melts in late spring, the runoff flows down via creeks and rivers into Great Salt Lake, raising its water level. As the summer wears on, a great deal of that water evaporates, and the lake level goes back down. (The water leaches salts and minerals from the soil as it runs down from the mountains, but none of the water flows out to other places, or to the ocean, which is why the lake is salty.)

Many places have sought man-made solutions to counter climate change. This recent, short-lived “pulse flow” in the Southwest connected the Colorado River to the Sea of Cortez, providing needed water.
Many places have sought man-made solutions to counter climate change. This recent, short-lived “pulse flow” in the Southwest connected the Colorado River to the Sea of Cortez, providing needed water. (Pete McBride)

Historically, this system was more or less in balance. The problem now, says Sarah Null, an associate professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University, is that less and less runoff actually reaches the lake, because humans consume more than half of it for residential, agricultural, and industrial uses. In a typical recent year, she says, about 2 million acre-feet of water flows into the lake—but some 2.2 million acre-feet is lost to evaporation. Thus the lake level has slowly and steadily fallen, on average, since the arrival of white settlers in the 1840s, although it has fluctuated with natural drought and precipitation cycles.

As the current western drought has progressed, intensified by warming temperatures due to climate change, that ­differential has grown: only 900,000 acre-feet of water reached the lake last year, and a paltry 700,000 acre-feet in 2021. That, in turn, has accelerated the lake’s decline, just as your bank account would dwindle by ever greater amounts if you earned a schoolteacher’s salary but developed a taste for heli-skiing trips, then Gucci shoes, then cocaine.

Both imbalances—your bank account and the shrinking Great Salt Lake—can be ­addressed in either of two ways: by bringing in more (money or water, as the case may be), or by using less and living within your means. Conservationists tend to prefer the latter option, naturally. Utahns, of which I am one, are notoriously profligate water users, usually ranking first or second in the nation in water consumption per capita. We also enjoy some of the cheapest water around, despite living in the second-driest state. As Zachary Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council points out, the true cost of municipal water is largely subsidized by property taxes. In some suburban areas, residents can access almost unlimited “secondary water,” intended for irrigation, for a nominal fee. In these neighborhoods, huge, well-watered lawns are the norm. On the agricultural side, approximately 75 percent of the water in the basin goes to sustaining crops such as alfalfa, a notoriously thirsty plant.

“In the past, we’ve had this mindset that this is what we want to do, so let’s go get the water,” says Rob Sowby, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Brigham Young University. “That mindset doesn’t work anymore. We have to shift our paradigm and say, ‘Here’s what we have, and we have to make do with what we’ve got.’ ”

Which makes a lot of sense. But consider the next part of the equation. Because the Great Salt Lake has declined so much recently, it needs an extra 1 million to 1.2 million acre-feet of water per year, for the next several years, just to bring it back up to where it should be, Sowby says.

While its waters are freakishly salty, the Great Salt Lake is far from dead: it produces much of the world’s brine shrimp, which support a lucrative fishery and attract millions upon millions of migratory birds each spring and fall. Various companies extract magnesium, salt, and other minerals from its waters. Some of my fancier neighbors once kept ocean-worthy sailboats on the lake, to take advantage of the winds sweeping out of the western deserts. And the lake helps (or helped) moderate Salt Lake City’s hot summers, while also contributing a bit to Utah’s famous snowfall.

“If it’s gonna cost a trillion dollars, it’s crazy. If it’s gonna cost a billion, and it’s absolutely necessary, then it could be done.”
—Utah senator Mitt Romney

The ideal lake level for everyone—brine shrimp, birds, sailors, skiers, and industry alike—is around 4,200 feet above sea level, according to Laura Vernon of the Utah Division of Water Resources. That’s more than 11 feet higher than its October 2022 low, and seven feet above where it is today. Getting there will require a reduction in water use by one-third to one-half across the board, ­according to the scientists’ and environmentalists’ report. That’s a steep ask, given that Utah’s population is expected to double by 2050—and that continued warming is likely to diminish mountain snowpacks and reduce spring runoff.

To its credit, the deeply Republican state legislature has finally begun addressing the dire situation of the lake. Speaker of the House Brad Wilson has taken lawmakers on helicopter tours to see the vanishing waters for themselves. Climate change remains a touchy subject, but hundreds of square miles of dry and dusty lake bed, in a valley that’s home to almost 2 million people, is hard to ignore. Over the past two sessions, Utah has made tweaks to water laws—the biggest being the designation of the lake as a beneficial use, a water-law concept meaning that rights holders can allow water to reach the lake without losing their allotments. Previously, water flowing into the lake was considered wasted, at least legally. “That’s a game changer,” says Null.

The state has also established a $40 million trust fund, administered by the Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy, to secure additional water rights for the lake. A bill proposed this year would funnel roughly $60 million annually in sales-tax money, currently earmarked for dam construction, to purchase still more water for the lake. (Meanwhile, a statewide task force is busy tallying up just how many water rights might be available, and at what cost.) A coalition of environmental groups has asked the state courts to grant the lake legal standing of its own, which would enable parties to file lawsuits on its behalf. Earlier this year, with much fanfare, two large Utah water authorities (the quasi-governmental bodies that operate dams) granted the lake 35,000 feet in additional water flows, enough to raise the level about three-quarters of an inch.

While all of these measures are commendable, none of them will come close to solving the problem. Making sure that all bases are covered, Utah Governor Spencer Cox urged citizens to “pray for rain” in 2021, for which he was roundly mocked.

Wilson and Romney have said that remedying the drying lake will cost “billions,” not millions, implying that more drastic measures are on the way—and that those measures might not be limited to conservation. Which brings us back to the initial question: Could importing water from the ocean—somehow, someway, for some price—be part of the answer?

It’s a seductive notion, making suddenly unlimited water available in the historically arid West. (The salinity of ocean water wouldn’t be a problem in the Great Salt Lake, which is five times saltier than the ocean.) And if the pipeline could be converted to carry fresh or desalinated water, which seems likely, the possibilities get really interesting.

“The biggest drag on any commercial project in the intermountain West is this question of ‘Is there enough water? Will there be enough water?’ ” says Todd Peterson, cofounder of a private group called International Water Holdings Corp. that is pushing the pipeline option. His group held conferences in Salt Lake City and Phoenix last summer that a handful of Utah legislators attended, along with a representative from Romney’s office.

Arizona is already planning to pipe desalinated ocean water across 200 miles of desert to Phoenix (cost: $5.5 billion), to augment its increasingly shaky supply from the Colorado River. That water would come not from offshore California but from the Sea of Cortez, between the Baja peninsula and mainland Mexico; any Utah pipeline would likely also originate there. The idea of importing ocean water, however, has been a tough sell: California considered several proposals to use ocean water to ­revive its own dying saline lake, the Salton Sea, which is only about 100 miles north of (and 238 feet lower in elevation than) the Sea of Cortez, and it ended up ­rejecting all of them for reasons related to cost and logistics.

“If it’s gonna cost a trillion dollars, it’s crazy,” says Romney. “If it’s gonna cost a billion, and it’s absolutely necessary, then it could be done. Is it something that can be done for 10 or 20 billion, or is it something massively more? That’s why I’ve asked for this study.”

But he cautions, “We have a long way to go to reach our maximum with conservation measures. That gives me some confidence that the extreme Hail Mary approach may not be needed.” He adds that he is considering ripping out his own lawn, in the Salt Lake City suburbs, and replacing it with low-water xeriscaping. “I don’t need a big lawn,” he says.

Others point out that conservation is the only way to get water into the lake quickly—because funding, permitting, and then building a pipeline will take years, if not decades. “We don’t have that long,” says Utah state senator Nate Blouin, a Democrat. “If we don’t get water into the Great Salt Lake in the next five years, it’s like a tipping point where all sorts of bad things will happen.”

Null adds that conservation is far cheaper than running a pipeline hundreds of miles. “I’m not buying that the problem is that we don’t have enough water,” she says. Rob Sowby and two colleagues estimated that pumping water across 800 miles and up more than 4,000 vertical feet would require 11 percent of Utah’s current electricity supply and pump another 1 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 200,000 passenger cars…Oy.

The question at the heart of the Great Salt Lake crisis has as much to do with willpower as it does with money. Do we have enough collective determination, and the ability to endure even moderate sacrifice, to do what needs to be done? Can we change ingrained habits that quickly—not just in the West, but around the globe? Or is it better to admit failure and build the pipeline? (Along with whatever other costly infrastructure projects we’re going to need to survive our ever warming, ever weirder climate.)

These are not abstract questions, at least not to someone like me, who recently purchased wildly overpriced real estate in Salt Lake City, a place where I’d like to stay. Living in Utah has shown me the kind of razor’s edge that millions of people around the world now exist on—how a once stable local climate can so easily tip into hellish dystopia. A dried-up Great Salt Lake would make the surrounding valley, home to almost two million people, all but uninhabitable. Right now only a few feet of water separates us from that scenario. It might happen in five years.  It might be next summer.

But probably not this summer. Utah and the rest of the Rocky Mountain West got buried in snow this past winter. Alta measured more than 900 inches of snowfall, demolishing all previous records, and the snowpack in the Great Salt Lake watershed swelled to more than twice its historical average in places. As meltwater begins rushing into rivers and creeks, Great Salt Lake has already risen four feet from its October 2022 record low, spreading out across once-dry lakebed. Sailboats have been put back into the Great Saltair Marina. Experts think the lake could come up another three to five feet as the rest of the snowpack melts, which would at least bring it back within striking distance of its optimal levels.

“If we don’t get water into the Great Salt Lake in the next five years, it’s like a tipping point where all sorts of bad things will happen.”
—Utah senator Nate Blouin

In other words, Nature built its own water pipeline from the Pacific this year. But the big snow year also sapped much of the urgency out of the cause of saving the lake (or, for that matter, doing anything to address climate change in general). The Republican-dominated Utah legislature shot down a nonbinding resolution that would have established an “ideal” level for Great Salt Lake. Another bill that would have diverted a tiny percentage of sales tax away from dam-building and toward saving the lake never even got a hearing. The local media now focus on the danger of flooding. Some of my neighbors have armored their lower-lying homes with sandbags. And the governor took a victory lap. Praying for rain had worked!

For now.

“This wet year is a boon, but one wet year alone won’t get us out of the woods,” warns Sarah Null. The same old problems—variable precipitation, drought, climate change, and overuse—are guaranteed to come back to haunt Great Salt Lake.

Which brings us back to the original problem: What are we going to do—if anything—to survive drought and climate change?

The wrongest of wrong answers is to do nothing. If we decide to get rational about water use, and some people surrender their lawns, golf courses, or hay crops, that’s great. If ­climate change ultimately whacks Utah’s snowpack—for example, by causing more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow—we may need water from elsewhere.

If building an expensive pipeline, or some other mega water project, may turn out to have been necessary—like the Great Salt Lake pumping station turned out not to be—that scenario is also fine. Perhaps the drought will end on its own; perhaps it already has. Analysis of tree-ring data shows that the Southwest has been subject to cyclical water shortages for the past 1,200 years, lasting an average of about 20 years. “They always end,” says Patrick Brown, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center in Oakland, California.

We should be so lucky. If we are, someday we’ll be able to drive our grandkids into the desert to see the abandoned Great Salt Lake Pipeline and say to them, Thank God we didn’t need that for very long.