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It's necessary to do something about the Great Salt Lake water level, but piping water in from California isn't necessarily the best idea.

Not all of the ideas for saving the Great Salt Lake are created equal

Do we really want to pipe water in from California?

Not all of the ideas to save the Great Salt Lake are created equal.

BY HEATHER BEERS

Do we really want to pipe water in from California?

Not all of the ideas to save the Great Salt Lake are created equal.

BY HEATHER BEERS

Y ou’ve probably heard by now, but the Great Salt Lake is drying up. The lake reached record lows this summer, dropping to 4,190.1 feet in July. To put this in perspective, the lake was flexing about 3,000 square miles in the 90s. Now, it’s withered to less than 1,000. 

There are some obvious things we can do about this, mostly on the agricultural side of things. But now we’re hearing of all kinds of less obvious ways we could save it, like amplifying snow storms or piping in water from California, among other ideas.

“We had 100 businesses in the room today [at a Salt Lake Chamber meeting] talking about the Great Salt Lake,” says Ginger Chinn, Salt Lake Chamber VP of public policy and government affairs. “It’s now more and more dire. We’re discussing how it will impact tourism, outdoor recreation, business recruitment—we feel like every idea needs to be put on the table.”

One of those ideas is called cloud seeding. The Utah Division of Water Resources explains it this way: “Ground-based seeders shoot silver iodide into winter clouds where it helps form ice crystals. The seeders are placed along foothills and higher elevations where the release of the cloud seeds is timed so that air currents carry them high into the cloud.”

In other words, cloud seeding can make snowstorms more productive, leading to more snowfall than under natural conditions.

Analysis by the organization shows that cloud seeding can increase precipitation by 5 to 15 percent in seeded areas. “We try to target areas where it’s most helpful,” says Jake Serago, water resource engineer and cloud seeding program coordinator for the Utah Division of Water Resources. “The major central and southern areas of the state, we’ve been seeding there since the 50s. In 2018, Salt Lake City reached out to us and said they want to participate and cloud seed the Wasatch Front.”

If the state has been cloud seeding since the 1950s, it’s proven effective at raising precipitation levels that impact our waterways, and studies show there are no harmful environmental effects, what’s the hold-up? Why hasn’t Utah already begun cloud seeding areas that could more directly impact water levels at the Great Salt Lake? 

Serago says it comes down to money. The organization’s budget has historically been limited to around $350,000 per year, requiring the need for co-sponsors such as municipalities who can support any seeding activity. “Up until now, because of the limited funds, we like to have a local sponsor who’s involved,” Serago says. “If we had enough funding, then we could do programs where there’s not a beneficiary who would pay.”

With a sufficient budget, the state could look at adding additional seeders that would impact the waterways that feed into the lake, Serago says. His department could also consider adding cloud seeding infrastructure to the mountainous areas surrounding the Great Salt Lake to more directly impact lake levels. Ultimately, with enough funding, Utah could afford to add cloud seeding aircraft to the mix, which could impact water levels even more.

Serago adds that due to increased concern over the lake and statewide drought, there could be a significant increase in the budget for cloud seeding this year if the governor and legislature allocate more funding. If so, his department plans on conducting research to identify strategic ground seeding sites this winter in preparation for additional cloud seeding infrastructure that could impact the Great Salt Lake by the winter of 2024.

With that said, Serago cautions against looking to cloud seeding as a standalone solution. “If we’re relying on cloud seeding alone, then we’ll never solve the problem,” he says. “We find that there’s about a 5 to 15 percent increase in the areas we target that are suitable for seeding, so it ends up being quite a bit of water. But on the scale of the Great Salt Lake? It’s relatively small.”

One option that’s a little more out there: Building a pipeline that traverses thousands of miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake. 

The idea was included in US Sen. Mitt Romney’s bill, the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act, which passed the Senate in July and advanced to the US House of Representatives. In addition to the authorization of $10 million for the US Army Corps of Engineers to monitor and assess the water availability and conditions of saline lakes in the Great Basin (including the Great Salt Lake), the bill authorizes a feasibility study for addressing drought conditions. Sen. Romney’s announcement explains that this may include “any potential technologies—including pipelines, coastal desalination plants, and canal reinforcement.”

In a written response to questions about the bill, Romney says, “The Great Salt Lake is at the lowest levels ever recorded—and the rest of the country is finally starting to understand the widespread repercussions of a diminished Lake. Saving the lake will cost money—there’s no doubt about that, but we can either spend money on mitigating all of the problems associated with a diminished lake or invest in saving the lake—and that choice is a no-brainer.”

  In August, International Water Holdings took the pipeline concept a step further, pitching members of Utah’s governor’s office and legislature on how to make it happen. International Water Holdings President Todd Peterson told Fox 13 News’ Ben Winslow that his group was looking for private funding for the pipeline, which he felt would be profitable.

Though all ideas should be considered, there are some who wish the pipeline initiative would be removed from the menu sooner than later. “Everyone by now has heard of the prospect of looking to the Pacific Ocean with a pipeline,” says Lynn de Freitas, executive director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the lake. “But there are a number of big problems that come with that. One is the time required. Another is the cost involved in providing the infrastructure from there to here. There’s also the question of what that water is going to cost beyond the timing and infrastructure.

There’s also the ecological aspect of bringing Pacific water to the Great Salt Lake, she says, which is a totally different ecosystem. “People think salt is salt, but this ecosystem in the basin has a range of salinity that is five to seven times saltier than the ocean,” de Freitas continues. “A pipeline brings in basically different organisms that can have an impact on the ecosystem as we now have it, and that could be extremely problematic. This is something I don’t see as a good way to spend time, money, or resources.”

Perhaps there’s a better option. In 2022, the state legislature passed more than 10 bills related to the Great Salt Lake, many focused on safeguarding and/or increasing the water levels. 

HB410, for example, sponsored by Speaker Brad Wilson, created a water trust charged with protecting the lake and its larger watershed. HB33, sponsored by Rep. Joel Ferry while he was serving in the House, will allow water rights holders to impact the Great Salt Lake and other natural lands. With its passage, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL) can now acquire water rights through purchase, lease, or donation when they become available, which could lead to increased water flow into the Great Salt Lake.

“While HB410 sets up the framework and funding for a water trust, HB33 makes it easier for the trust to strike deals to help supply water to the lake,” Wilson says. “It does so by providing greater legal recognition for non-consumptive water rights—for example, water rights that could be leased by the trust on a temporary basis to benefit the lake.”

By September, the FFSL was ironing out the details to get the water trust in place. “We’re working on the agreement between the nonprofits and [FFSL] to set up the water trust,” says Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake coordinator for FFSL. “We have an initial $30 million allocated for water rights acquisition or lease, and then another $10 million for Great Salt Lake watershed enhancement projects benefiting the wetlands and ecosystem around the lake.”

As the powers that be weigh these and other options, one thing for Utahns to remember is we can all do our part. State agencies are asking us to conserve water and protect the lakebed crust from turning to potentially airborne dust. Vernon says it’s illegal to disturb the crust by driving on the exposed lakebed. 

“Saving the lake is a big effort and, more than likely will take several ideas—not just one grand idea—to make a substantial impact,” Wilson says. “Again, we are looking at all options and considering the pros and cons of each. We encourage all to think outside the box and do their part to conserve water and send it downstream to the Great Salt Lake.”

Comments (6)

  • James Haufler

    For the damage that a dry lakebed can do, see what has happened to the area around the Salton Sea in California.

    Toxic dust. Stinky wind. Closed businesses. Asthma all over.

    reply
  • Sonnia

    I think it’s the most ridiculous thing i’ve heard of !

    reply
  • Karen Eyre

    Can we pipe rain water from the flooding states and cities out west where evryone is drying up!!??

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  • Karen Eyre

    Can we please pipe fresh water out west from the flooded cities like louisiana!! Out West is drying up everywhere!!

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  • Dave

    Piping in water seems to obvious to ignore. Fill the lake and get more lake effect snow. There are a lot of places in the world that rely on mountain snow for water. This could be an experiment that benefits more than Utah.

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  • Paul

    The logistics and costs of lifting trillions of gallons of water roughly 4,000 feet at 8 lbs. per gallon, and transporting it nearly 600 miles to spill into the GSL should make the pipeline project a non-starter. In addition to the cost issue, the ecological issues touched on by the article make this a lame brained concept. It is on the list because of two things: 1) well connected county commissioners whose understanding of these issues is about as deep as their concern for the lake or their claims to fiscal conservatism, and 2) the possibility that someone can make a profit by tapping into the billions or maybe trillions of dollars this scheme could cost. Let’s hope it doesn’t survive long into the process.

    reply

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