Could a 550-Mile Pipeline From the Ocean Save the Great Salt Lake? Scientists Say Probably Not

New research suggests the electricity costs would exceed $300 million per year and carbon dioxide emissions could approach one million metric tons annually

Docks above a dried lakebed
Boat docks sit on dry, cracked earth at the Great Salt Lake's Antelope Island Marina on August 1, 2021. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A 550-mile pipeline pumping water from the Pacific Ocean to the rapidly depleting Great Salt Lake in Utah would be an “enormous” drain of energy and money—and it would emit nearly one million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, suggests new research from Brigham Young University (BYU).  

The controversial pipeline idea was floated last year in a Utah legislative meeting as a solution to refill the shrinking lake amid drought in the West. Since then, the notion has been met with disbelief from many—the editorial board of the Salt Lake Tribune called it “loony.” 

Now, with a study published in November in Environmental Research Communications, Rob Sowby, a civil and construction engineer at BYU, tells NBC News’ Evan Bush he hopes to finally “put the Pacific pipeline idea to rest.” 

Sowby tells NBC the pipeline “sounds ridiculous,” but he grew concerned when it seemed to gain traction among the public, policymakers and private funders. Last year, the state’s Legislative Water Development Commission authorized a study of the pipeline alongside other ideas, reports Ben Winslow of FOX13

When asked whether the pipeline was an actual consideration last year, then-Representative Joel Ferry, who co-chaired the commission, told FOX: “We’re dead serious about this… Desperate times call for desperate measures, and all options are on the table.” Ferry now serves as the executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. 

So, Sowby and his colleagues decided to do some rough math to figure out what such a pipeline might cost. 

Their calculations were under an overly optimistic scenario: The pipeline would run across a fictitious, shortest route without mountains or other obstacles and would deliver only a third of the recommended inflow through a single, smooth, large-diameter pipe. They did not consider additional costs of construction, land, securing permits and maintenance, per the study. 

Even under these caveats, the team found that pumping would require at least 400 megawatts of electricity during operation, which is equivalent to about 11 percent of Utah’s yearly electricity demand, based on 2021 data. That amount of electricity would cost more than $300 million annually and emit roughly as much carbon dioxide per year as 200,000 passenger vehicles.

“There are many potential challenges with bringing Pacific Ocean water to Great Salt Lake: right of way, construction, permitting and salinity,” Sowby tells Newsweek’s Robyn White. “We analyzed energy use and emissions, in particular, during the operational phase. No one has looked at that yet. Even in a best-case scenario, it’s enormous.”

Water levels in Utah’s Great Salt Lake have been dropping since 1986, hitting a historic low last fall. The lake refills as rivers carrying meltwater from the mountains empty into it, but the state’s overconsumption of water and a climate change-fueled megadrought have led to major shortages. Since pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley in the mid-1800s, the lake’s water volume has dropped by more than two-thirds, per NBC.

This creates a problem for wildlife, as the lake is important to the region’s ecology and provides a crucial stopover habitat for migratory birds. But it could also threaten humans: As the lake shrank, 800 square miles of lakebed have become exposed—uncovering centuries of built up toxins like mercury, arsenic and selenium. As winds blow from the lake to nearby Salt Lake City, scientists are concerned that toxic dust could impact its millions of residents

Many say a more straightforward route to avoiding these catastrophic consequences would be through conserving water rather than trying to add more into the lake. 

“There’s been a lot of shift in thinking throughout the West in terms of water conservation, living within people’s means and the idea of limits—we can’t just use whatever we want,” Michael Cohen, a senior associate at the Pacific Institute, a research foundation focused on water issues, tells NBC. Though, he adds that as people become more desperate for a solution, he expects pipelines will continue to be discussed, despite what the science says. 

Brian Steed, Utah’s Great Salt Lake commissioner, tells Carter Williams of KSL that the pipeline is not among the options Utah is considering because of a lack of support for the project.

“We have to focus on the shorter term, on conservation and living within the water budget that we currently have,” he tells the publication.

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