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Study says a GSL pipeline is not only incredibly expensive, but very polluting

By Ben Winslow - Fox 13 News | Dec 31, 2023

Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner file photo

The Great Salt Lake as seen from Antelope Island, photographed April 21, 2023.

Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

SALT LAKE CITY — A recent study by Brigham Young University appears to make the notion of a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake more of a “pipe dream.”

“This pipeline and similar exotic proposals are a distraction from what we really need to be doing here,” said Rob Sowby, an associate professor of civil and construction engineering at BYU.

The Great Salt Lake shrunk to its lowest levels in recorded history last year as a result of water development, drought and a changing climate. It presents a significant ecological threat to northern Utah with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and harms to public health and wildlife.

The idea of a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake first emerged in 2022, when FOX 13 News reported on it at a meeting of the Utah State Legislature’s Water Development Commission.

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

“We wanted to explore all options. Everything is on the table. We wanted a big menu. We did some back of the envelope calculations, preliminary numbers to pull this information,” said Joel Ferry, the executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, who was a state lawmaker and commissioner who approved a study.

Ferry himself said in 2022 it could cost upwards of $100 billion to construct such a pipeline (and that says nothing of environmental and regulatory hurdles of a pipeline crossing two states).

“What that study showed is it is really expensive and to move water whether it’s from the ocean or some other watershed, it’s really expensive,” Ferry told FOX 13 News.

Sowby and his co-authors decided to calculate how much it would cost for a pipeline to the Great Salt Lake, issuing his own findings in November. Their study was published in the journal “Environmental Research Communications.”

“If we skip ahead and consider that this pipeline is actually built — we’ll just kind of skip over all that construction, design and planning feasibility — what would it actually take to operate?” Sowby told FOX 13 News in a recent interview.

What the BYU study found is that in an “ideal situation,” the energy required to pipe water across two states into Utah would be the equivalent of a large power plant.

“No matter how you do it, no matter which route you choose, it’s still a net lift of 4,200-feet plus friction along the way. So it’s going to take 400 megawatts, round the clock, that’s to move about 300,000 acre feet which is less than a third of what the lake needs to recover over a long period of time through a 10-foot diameter smooth pipe,” Sowby said.

The 400 megawatts calculated is roughly 11% of Utah’s entire electric use, he said. To run it, the BYU study found a starting price point to run a pipeline would be $300 million (and going up from there).

Energy use also creates carbon emissions and, using the state’s current reliance on a combination of fossil fuels and other sources, BYU calculated how much pollution it would create.

“The equivalent of 400 megawatts is almost one million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. So that’s like adding 200,000 passenger cars to Utah’s roads,” Sowby said. “That’s the kind of CO2 we’d be putting out if this pipeline were to operate.”

So far, Utah’s political leaders have not seriously considered a pipeline project, nor has the state even budgeted for it. Environmental groups have dismissed the idea as well. Instead, lawmakers have passed and funded water conservation measures across the state.

Ferry said the BYU study has answered more questions that might come up, but said conservation and other water measures are what he is focusing on.

“We have to understand that these types of projects are really expensive, and is it worth it?” he said. “I think that’s what we have to look at big picture, is to say are we willing to make the investment to move water from the ocean or are we willing to make the investment to conserve?”


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