June 14, 2022

Dr. Wayne Wurtsbaugh: A Pacific Pipeline to Save Great Salt Lake is a Terrible Idea

The Utah Water Development Commission is exploring whether we can save the shrinking Great Salt Lake by piping water from the Pacific Ocean, perhaps by purchasing a gas pipeline that runs from Wyoming to Oregon. Besides being exorbitantly expensive to build and operate, and a permitting nightmare, the Pacific pipeline would rapidly destroy the lake’s ecology and much of its economic value. Why? The lake currently has a mean depth of only 13.6 feet and an annual evaporative loss of 3.6 feet.  That means that all the water in the lake is replaced approximately every four years.  In good years, evaporation is balanced by direct rainfall (27%) and river water (63%), with negligible amounts of salt in them. The current salinity of the south arm of the lake is around 190 g/L (17%) as a result of accumulating tiny amounts of salt over thousands of years from the inflowing rivers.  This is a high salinity, but marginally OK for the growth and survival of brine shrimp and brine fly larvae.  However, if we replaced river inflow with seawater which has a salinity of 35 g/L, the salinity of the lake would rise quickly. In 10 years, the salinity would be near 250 g/L (21%) and brine flies and brine shrimp would be stressed and populations would decline severely.  In 20 years, the salinity would be near 310 g/L (26%), and we would lose both of these valuable resources that provide food for millions of migratory birds, as well as supporting a $70 million dollar brine shrimp aquaculture industry.    

An additional problem would be the importation of invasive organisms from the seawater.  These would not survive in the hypersaline main lake, but some would survive in the Farmington Bay and Bear River Bay estuaries that have salinity gradients ranging from fresh, to 2-3 times that of seawater.  The Great Lakes, and now even Lake Powell, are suffering billions of dollars in damages from invasive organisms brought in via ship ballasts and live-tanks.  We do not need the direct import of invasive species via a pipeline! 

As they did last term, Utah Legislators need to look seriously at the problem of saving Great Salt Lake and propose realistic solutions such as implementing conservation measures, buying water rights for the lake, promoting lower population growth, and terminating the expensive and counter-productive Bear River Development Project.  Ill-advised  proposals like a pipeline from the Pacific only detract from the serious work ahead for all Utahans.

Dr. Wayne Wurtsbaugh, Emeritus Professor

Watershed Sciences Department, Utah State University.

June 7, 2022