July 01, 2022

Lynn de Freitas: Time to hit the reset button on water development projects in Utah

Utah’s Bear River Development Act makes no sense in today’s drought-rules world

By Lynn de Freitas | Special to The Tribune| June 23, 2022, 6:00 a.m.

Unless you’ve been on an extended cruise, it shouldn’t come as news that the Great Salt Lake is in trouble. The lake’s water level last year reached an historic low, and this year promises more of the same.

And, judging from the contents of my email inbox, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of ideas on how to “fix” Great Salt Lake. And while some of those ideas are “out there” – think Pacific Ocean pipeline – not a single one of them advocates for taking more water out of inflows to the lake. Now, that would be really crazy, wouldn’t it?

And yet, in the latest version of state’s Water Resources Plan, published just six months ago, the Utah Division of Water Resources continues to pursue the goal of developing the Bear River.

Look, I get it. When the Utah Legislature passed the Bear River Development Act in 1991, the lake was just coming out of the flood years of the 1980s, when the lake rose to a level of 4,211.85 feet, more than 20 feet above last year’s record low level of 4,191.3 feet. There had been so much water in the lake in the mid-80′s that we actually began pumping excess water into the West Desert in 1987.

In that context, a development project that called for delivering 220,000 acre-feet of water out of the Bear River each year to supply water to communities along the Wasatch Front didn’t seem all that out there. It might have seemed irresponsible from a fiscal standpoint, and unacceptable from an environmental standpoint, but with the lake as high as it was almost nobody was criticizing the project because it would take water out of the system.

Clearly, that has changed. Fast forward 30 years and all any of us can talk about today is how the lake’s ecosystem is on the edge of crashing and what that will mean if that were to happen. To show his support for the lake, Gov. Spencer Cox announced his budget from Antelope Island and, to show their support for the lake, the Legislature passed a whole slew of bills focused on getting more water into the lake. All very important and necessary gestures.

So why, in the face of that reality, does the state continue planning for developing the Bear River? Is it because we’ve already sunk so much money into the project that we just can’t bring ourselves to throw that away?

In business, this is known as the sunk cost fallacy, where you mistakenly factor in the money you’ve already invested in a project when deciding whether or not to continue pursuing that project. We also call that throwing good money after bad. But let’s look at it another way. Can you think of a single legislator who would introduce the Bear River Development Act today? Even one? And if they did, what kind of response do you think that person would get?

I know it takes a great deal of political fortitude to admit that the time has passed for the Bear River development, but it’s time to let it go. I honestly don’t see where there’s much difference between passing new legislation and continuing to pursue old legislation: A bad idea is a bad idea. And continuing to plan for a water development project that would be the final nail in the coffin for Great Salt Lake is not just a bad idea, it’s irresponsible.

I understand that we have to consider new ideas for saving the lake; that we have to think creatively. But we also have to let go of old ideas that no longer make sense in the face of today’s realities. Let’s not point fingers, or cast blame or lament all of the money we’ve spent on that project. Let’s just tape that box up, put it on a shelf in the closet and close the door.