Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, introduced a bill in the US Senate last year to study saline lakes.
The bill struggled to gain attention because, as the senator from Utah said, few people seemed to understand or care about the Great Salt Lake. While researchers have warned of the severe impacts that the drying up of the Great Salt Lake would have on the environment, the problem has apparently been bottled up in Utah.
That’s why he doesn’t believe recent coverage of the Great Salt Lake’s drying up in The New York Times and other national media has made much of a difference to the concern Utahns already have about the lake. However, it seems to have helped his colleagues in Washington realize the importance of the situation.
“Now they understand. ‘Yeah, we care’ because it’s going to send arsenic into the air and other heavy metals, and it won’t just affect Salt Lake City and the global economy. , it will affect other communities (east of Utah) as well,” Romney said.
“It’s a real problem for our country and I think it’s something that the national media has understood…so my colleagues in the Senate and the House realize that it’s a big problem,” adds he. “It’s not just a Utah problem, it’s an American problem.”
It’s also a problem that will likely take “several billions of dollars” to fix, which he says is now the next step for the troubled lake.
Romney made the comments during a videoconference with members of the Utah media on Wednesday, pointing to a similar bill he introduced with Utah Representatives Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart. Bill authorizes $10 million for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “monitor and assess” water availability and condition of Great Basin saline lakes, like Great Salt Lake, to better understand ecosystems Lake.
It is also creating a feasibility study to deal with the ongoing drought conditions around the Great Salt Lake, which would look at any “potential technologies” like pipelines, coastal desalination plants or channel reinforcement projects that could redirect the water sources to the lake. This includes the ability to allow redirection of water sources across state lines into the lake.
The Great Salt Lake reached a record high on July 3, when levels dropped to 4,190.1 feet at the US Geological Survey’s Saltair station. It has since dropped at least another tenth of a foot, with periodic levels below 4,190 feet, according to the federal agency.
The Utah Division of Forests, Fires and State Lands estimates it would cost $1.69 billion to $2.17 billion if the lake were to drop another 10 feet in the future. Beyond that, every 8 feet it falls exposes 30 miles of lake bed which contains heavy metals that have been absorbed over time. This is in addition to the impact it would have on the 10 million migrating birds that use the lake each year.
Romney said the money requested in the bill has already been secured and he expects recommendations for solutions to begin to emerge over the next year. These results will be used to define strategies to help raise lake levels in the future.
How much does a solution cost?
It remains to be seen what those solutions are and how much they will cost, but each extreme idea will likely be costly.
For example, in 2012 the US Bureau of Reclamation studied the idea of a pipeline to pump water from the Missouri or Mississippi rivers westward; the agency estimated at the time that such a project would cost between $8.6 billion and $14.6 billion, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Adjusting for inflation, that would be more than about $18.2 billion today.
A Great Salt Lake pipeline is something that would be considered in the new federal study, although the idea is met with many skeptics. Gov. Spencer Cox, in a joint interview with KSL-TV and the Salt Lake Tribune for the Great Salt Lake Collaborative on Tuesday, said he still believed a pipeline was “highly dodgy,” but at least he’s come to terms with it. to consider it with any other unconventional idea imaginable.
“We owe it to everyone to look at all the possibilities,” the governor said.
Romney agrees it’s worth studying even if it’s a pipe dream. He also thinks the cost of a solution will be worth it, pointing to the Big Dig, a Massachusetts project that was still underway when he was governor there, which ultimately cost more than $15 billion.
“If we’re willing to spend $15 billion on the Big Dig, we should be willing to spend whatever it takes to make sure we preserve the Great Salt Lake and Utah’s economy and to some extent , the nation’s economy. ,” he said.
But looking at the mind-boggling estimates, it’s easier to ask, what if Utah reduced the water it uses?
What about conservation?
Utah passed a handful of bills in the last legislative session that leaders say will help the Great Salt Lake. The state amended the “use it or lose it” component of its water law earlier this year to allow those with water rights to donate or lease their water rights. to improve flow in the Great Salt Lake, Cox said.
One law, in particular, also provided $40 million to be used to protect and restore the Great Salt Lake watershed. The National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy were recruited in June to help oversee this program. Cox adds that Utahans in residential areas are doing better at reducing the water they use on lawns, while more farmers are also looking for ways to be more efficient with their use of water. the water.
Romney argues that anything that helps reduce water usage so that water from Utah’s rivers and streams flows into the lake is “probably the easiest, cheapest, and most proven method.” to help the lake, but studies aren’t yet clear about how much it will help. And with less rainfall and a string of light snowfalls over the past few decades, it’s not clear that reducing consumption alone will be enough.
All this will be taken into account in the next study of the lake.
“I believe (conservation will do) a lot, I suspect a lot, hopefully conservation alone will do the job – otherwise we’ll have to look at some of the more extreme options,” he said. “I hope we don’t have to reach them. We may not have to.”
Until the US Army Corps of Engineers completes its study, the senator said the future will be “difficult to predict”. What is much easier to predict is what will happen if the Great Salt Lake continues to decline at the rate it is currently trending.
Given what is at stake and the new national attention on the issue, Romney believes the Great Salt Lake will not be ignored as it once was.
“I believe the recognition of the consequence for Utah, for the national economy and surrounding states,” he said, “the consequences of that notoriety will tend to focus people’s minds so that they act”.