The Great Salt Lake has shrunk. In 1985 the lake filled to its capacity. In 2022 the lake is at its lowest point on record. Some fear the Great Salt Lake will soon disappear completely.
Does The Great Salt Lake Really Need Saving?
Since 1947, the Great Salt Lake has had a well-documented fluctuating surface level above sea-level between 4,190’ in 1963 and 4,211’ in 1986. Without human intervention the lake would likely fluctuate within this range for many years to come and eventually turn into a salt flat, but that eventuality would be well beyond the lifetime of anyone alive today.
Great Salt Lake Hits A New Low.
The average daily level of the Great Salt Lake hit a new record low in November 2022, when it dropped to 4188.5 feet. The lake’s elevation fluctuates depending on the balance between inflow and outflow of water generated by moisture within The Great Basin watershed. The Great Salt Lake’s drop has accelerated since 2020, with an average deficit of 1.2 million acre-feet per year. If this loss rate continues, the lake as we know it, is on track to disappear in five years. The lake needs an additional million acre-feet per year to reverse its decline. For reference, the bottom of the Great Salt Lake is at 4,160 feet.
Left to right: Govenor Spencer Cox; Senator Mitt Romney; Brian Steed Great Salt Lake Commissioner
Utah Is In A State Of Panic.
Utah is scrambling for a solution to this situation. Gov. Cox proposed $45 million to protect the Great Salt Lake. The US Senate passed the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act, dedicating $25 million to study historic drought conditions and protect the long-term health of the Great Salt Lake. A Great Salt Lake Advisory Council was created in 2010 to advise on the protection of the Great Salt Lake. Utah lawmakers passed a bill requiring appointment of a Great Salt Lake Commissioner who would prepare a strategic plan to maintain and improve the long-term health of the Lake. Gov. Spencer Cox named Brian Steed as the state’s Great Salt Lake Commissioner. A group of news, education and media organizations collaborated to create The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative which is intended to better inform and engage the public about the crisis facing the Great Salt Lake, and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.
Move The Water! To The Rescue.
Active Climate Rescue Initiative proposes one infrastructure project which will solve the issue of the shrinking Great Salt Lake, but surprise, it does not take any direct action toward the Great Salt Lake. We posit that the problem of the evaporating Great Salt Lake is an unintended consequence of overdrawing water from the Colorado River. Active Climate Rescue Initiative believes that the primary cause of this diminished Colorado River flow is a direct result of the excessive extraction of water from the Colorado River, with much of that draw being exported outside of the watershed. We also have identified this single solution, which when implemented will restore historic flow to the Colorado River and subsequently bring a host of other benefits, one of which will be the refilling of the Great Salt Lake.
Colorado Utah near Moab UT
Water has been siphoned off the Colorado River for human use for many years. As an example: California began extracting 1/3 of the river’s flow in 1939 and continues today. Under a 1948 agreement, Utah is entitled to 23% of the water used by the four states in the upper Colorado River Basin. This is around 1-million acre-feet of water from the Colorado annually. Two-thirds of the Colorado River water in Utah is used for agriculture, mostly to irrigate alfalfa fields.
Everyone Feels The Pain
The issue with the Colorado River’s diminishing flow is shared among all users of the river water. Granted, some users of the river’s water are more concerned than Utah because the loss of that water means loss of drinking water and loss of electrical power for millions of people. Both problems seem much more important than alfalfa fields in Utah, but the problem still exists.
Working Within A Watershed.
Water drawn from a river and used within the watershed will eventually return in a smaller quantity to the river. A farmer irrigating his fields adjacent to a river can use river water and after that water is deposited on his fields, some is used by the plants, and some is evaporated, but what is left flows through the ground back to the river. Water drawn from a river and removed from the watershed will detrimentally affect the river flow. This is the case with the extraction from the Colorado River. So much is removed and not returned that the river does an unnatural thing, it diminishes to nothing.
A normal river begins with rain and snow which accumulates into a creek, gathers into a stream, and eventually a flowing river, possibly joined by other rivers, until it empties into a large body of water, like a lake or ocean. This was the case for the Colorado River, back into time before recorded history.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about [the] Cadillac Desert in the past few weeks, as the rain fell and fell and kept falling over California, much of which, despite the pouring heavens, seems likely to remain in the grip of a severe drought. Reisner anticipated this moment. He worried that the West’s success with irrigation could be a mirage — that it took water for granted and didn’t appreciate the precariousness of our capacity to control it.” – Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times, January 20,2023
Manmade Ecological Disaster.
During the 1930’s the Colorado River water began to no longer reach its delta. The delta began to dwindle halfway through the 20th century as the Colorado River was increasingly diverted to farms and cities. The construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s marked the beginning of the end for the Colorado River Delta. For six years, as Lake Mead filled behind the dam, virtually no freshwater reached the delta. The Colorado River Delta is now a desert.
Who Cares If The Delta Is Now Dry?
At first thought, why is it important that the delta is dry? Consider that the Colorado River Delta was a verdant oasis in a parched Mexico, covering approximately 3,000 square miles. Today that delta is dead. The 3,000 square miles are a desert. No more fishing or bird habitat. No more farming, blooming flowers, or tall trees. This is an ecological disaster caused by the excessive water extraction from the Colorado River.
How Does This Affect Utah?
At second thought, why should Utah care about a desert in Mexico? This question is answered by the fact that they are concerned about the Great Salt Lake becoming dry. Which may make you wonder how that is an answer to the question.
The Colorado River water comes from snow and rain, but where does the snow and rain come from? The rain and snow come from more than one hydrologic cycle. The root of the problem with the diminished Colorado River flow is that one of these hydrologic cycles is broken. This one hydrologic cycle feeds the Colorado River Watershed from the south (oversimplified: Colorado River Delta, MX > Laguna Salada, MX > Salton Sea, CA > Death Valley, NV > Great Salt Lake, UT > Colorado River > Laguna Salada, MX). Some wish to blame this broken water cycle on Climate Change, but it appears much more logical that this is a manmade broken water cycle which is contributing to Climate Change, not caused by it.
The Colorado River Aqueduct, a 242-mile-long channel completed in 1941 by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, carries water from the Colorado River out of its watershed to urban Southern California.
Here Is What Happened.
During the 1930s, California created the Colorado River Aqueduct which began operation in 1939, removing 1,200,000 acre-ft (1.5 cubic km3) annually from the watershed. Other people/cities/states also draw Colorado River water. Those which are within the watershed have less effect on the water cycle than those which are outside of the watershed. The net result is that all the water of the Colorado River is fully used before it passes Mexicali, MX. It no longer refills Laguna Salada, and it has left a desert wasteland where there used to be a fertile river delta. With the water no longer refilling Laguna Salada and no longer moisturizing the delta, there is no water to evaporate and continue the Hydrologic Cycle. This has broken the Hydrologic Cycle, which has created a drought, which has spurred domino droughts, which has led to the current mega-drought.
The Rain Shadow effect exists because as warm moist air rises up the windward side of a mountain, atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing altitude. The air expands and cools to the point that the air has reached its dew point. At the dew point, the moisture condenses, and it precipitates on the top and windward side of the mountain. The air descends on the leeward side but due to the previous precipitation it has lost much of its moisture. Typically, descending air also gets warmer because of compression down the leeward side of the mountain, which increases the amount of moisture that it can absorb and creates an arid region.
Great Basin Moisture Deficit.
The mega-drought exacerbates an existing natural issue in the Great Basin. The natural condition of the Great Basin is that of moisture deficit. This is because of the Rain Shadow Effect. The Great Basin has mountains all around it. The Rain Shadow Effect associated with these mountains allows more water to be blown-out than is allowed to be blown-in to the Great Basin, which creates a natural moisture deficit, which creates a natural desert. It has not always been this way. We see evidence of great amounts of water having been within the great basin. I will posit one explanation. Approximately 2,457 BC, at the end of Noah’s Flood, the great basin would have been full to the brim with water. Because of the natural moisture deficit, during the 4,480 subsequent years that water would have evaporated leaving the land dry, and large amounts of salt deposits left behind. Since the Great Basin receives its water from the west and south, and since the southern water-cycle has been broken, less moisture is entering the Great Basin, which is becoming evident with the diminished water level of the Great Salt Lake, and the Great Salt Lake achieving its lowest recorded level in 2022 (so far).
Can We Fix This?
So, what can be done? How can this be fixed? Like your personal family budget, when the income is exceeding the spending there are two things which can be done. The first is reduce spending and the second is increase the income. This is the same with the moisture problem in the SW-USA, and within Utah. To reduce the spending, conservation is the first action which should be encouraged so that there is time to enact the primary solution of increasing the moisture. To increase the income the water-cycle must be repaired. Is this possible without depriving millions of life-giving fresh water? The answer is: YES. There is one elegant solution which will repair the water-cycle. It is a multi-state infrastructure project. The focus for Utah must be repairing the water-cycle. The result will be a refilled Great Salt Lake.
One Infrastructure Project In Three Parts.
Reverse the flow of the Coyote Canal so that ocean water from the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) flows into Laguna Salada, MX. This would be gravity flow and it will begin to repair the water cycle. As the water passes through the now dry Colorado River Delta it will have beneficial effects on the delta. The return of water to Laguna Salada will also bring climate justice to the local indigenous people by restoring their fishing grounds.
The $45 million to protect the Great Salt Lake and the $25 million to study historic drought conditions would be better spent implementing this part of the plan in Mexico. Getting even one part of the plan done will lead to improvement for Utah. See the video below to for a tour of a proposed canal.
Extend the Coyote Canal so that the Laguna Salada water flows into the Salton Sea. Care must be taken to assure that the Salton Sea maintains its historical optimal level from the 1950s. This would be by gravity flow, and it will continue to repair the water cycle. The increased water level of the Salton Sea would return commerce to the area, bring recreation to the sea, increase the local moisture with benefit to local indigenous people groups and native Californians in Imperial Valley and up into the Central Valley. The flow through from Laguna Salada, MX to the Salton Sea would assure Laguna Salada, MX does not become hypersaline.
Is This Enough?
No. The above two parts should be enough to break the mega-drought, but more is needed if the full flow of the Colorado River is to be realized. The hard part is next.
The hard part is pumping Salton Sea water into the Great Basin; logically into Death Valley. The flowthrough from the Salton Sea to the Great Basin would assure the Salton Sea does not become hypersaline, and in time reduce the saline level to that of the ocean. The exact amount of water needed has not been calculated. This proposal suggests five 8-foot diameter pipes carrying the ocean water over the mountains and into the Great Basin at a rate of 0.5 acre-feet per second. These 5-pipes with the 0.5 acre-feet per second flow mimics the Colorado River flow at its delta in ages past. The project can be installed in pieces. The first stage would be two 8-foot diameter pipes. The minimum proposed flow is 1/5th of the freshwater annually extracted from the Colorado River, the flow of one of the pipes. The maximum proposed flow is equal to the amount of freshwater annually extracted from the Colorado River, 15 million acre-feet of Salton Sea water annually pumping from all 5-pipes. Depending on the ecological results, the full flow of all five 8-foot diameter pipes may not be needed. The water delivered into the Great Basin would end its water deficit and set it up for rehydration, which would be a boon on many levels.
That Is Expensive!
It may well be expensive, but what is the cost of doing nothing? The good news is that the cost of pumping the water over the mountain could come from a fee on water drawn from the Colorado River. Those who have drawn Colorado River water over the last century have done so without any charge for what they received, forgetting that nothing is free. The fee can be collected and administered by the Reclamation Bureau, along with operational control of the pipeline. The construction costs could be funded by the Federal Government as a Climate Change infrastructure project with the Corps of Engineers doing the work. Alternatively, the construction costs could be collected as part of the fees by the Reclamation Bureau. The proposed fee/tax would be on each gallon of water drawn from the Colorado River in an amount equal to the cost of pumping one gallon into the Great Basin.
There are multiple benefits to the ‘Move the Water!’ plan. Seven are enumerated below.
1. Reversing Global Warming
This effort will combat Climate Change by cooling many very hot places. When working to reverse Global Warming, effort placed in the hottest places reaps the greatest direct benefit. All the target areas in this plan are very hot places and all will be cooler with the presence of the newly imported water. Increased water in deserts increases evaporation, which is a natural cooling process. The evaporated water returns as fresh clean water in form of mist/rain/snow, which is a natural cooling process. The fresh clean rainwater hydrates the land benefiting man/animals/plants. The hydration and increases plant growth. The increased plant growth cools the desert floor which will allow fresh rainwater to percolate into the ground and be stored for later use, which also keeps it from returning to the ocean. The plants cool the ground by their shade and release water as a byproduct of their transpiration, both of which are natural cooling processes. The increased plant growth increases the amount of CO2 extracted from the air by the now active plants, storing the carbon in their little plant bodies, and ultimately in the ground. All of these benefits are reaped from natural processes, green processes, leaving a net-positive green footprint.
The North American monsoon is a complex weather process that brings moisture from the Gulf of California over northwestern Mexico and southwestern US resulting in summer thunderstorms, especially at higher elevations.
2. Increase the North American Monsoon.
There is a lot of research still needed to fully understand the North American Monsoon, but there is some evidence which points to the desertification of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico as a cause of a temperature inversion which limits the North American Monsoon. Restoring Laguna Salada should break this blockage.
3. Laguna Salada, Baja, MX
Refilling Laguna Salada, MX, in addition to providing local climate change benefits as described above, will provide some climate justice for the local indigenous people who lost their historic native fishing ground because of the over-drawn river.
4. Salton Sea, CA, USA
Refilling the Salton Sea to its historic 1950’s level will return that area to its 1950’s popularity, which will be a financial boon for many which will also grow California’s tax revenue. There will be a moisture benefit for Imperial Valley which will naturally flow up into California’s Central Valley.
5. The Great Basin
Rehydration of The Great Basin will have many benefits. The increased moisture will increase mist/rain/snow. This freshwater will provide climate justice to the indigenous peoples living in remote desert reservations. The increased moisture allows for increased farming. In this case the Great Basin could become a new breadbasket for the USA. As the moisture circulates within The Great Basin multiple freshwater streams, rivers, and lakes will occur. With the increased moisture the Great Salt Lake will naturally have an increased surface level.
Southern Idaho is hand-to-mouth with their water supply. “Every drop of water we can get, every snow flurry is beneficial, but overall, across the state, we’re expecting the drought to continue. It’s great, but it’s not going to pull us out. We really want to see a kind-of long-term pattern develop; a pattern change develop.” hydrologist David Hoekema
6. Rehydration Of Southern Idaho.
There is correlative data which links the level of the Snake River Aquifer to the level of The Great Salt Lake. Looking at the geology of the area it is easy to postulate that a rehydrated Great Basin would lead to a moister Southern Idaho.
Stock image of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir by volume in the United States.© bloodua/Getty
7. Colorado River.
Not to be forgotten, all the previous benefits will work to restore the hydrologic cycle, which will push freshwater (rain/snow) into the headwaters of the Colorado and Snake Rivers.
Looking at the grand design this can be viewed as a terraforming project, but there are several suggested problems with a project of this scope. The good news is that all are manageable.
A terminal lake which has no surface outlet (rivers flowing from it) will become a lake with a very high saline level.
The biggest concern is creating a hypersaline sea and/or leaving salt behind after evaporation. Be aware that all the areas where ocean water importation is proposed are areas which are already saline with brackish water aquifers. So, bringing in salt water is not an environmental catastrophe. Rather the resulting rain will work to overlay the salt water with fresh because salt water is heavier than fresh water. Aquifers being filled with rainwater will have fresh water on top of the brackish water. Decades from now the brackish water in aquifers will be of little concern. The salt left behind will be deposited in the terminal pool, which will be Death Valley, which is already a saltpan. It is likely that Death Valley will turn into an inland salt sea, and it will become hypersaline, but that is natural and cannot be avoided, however industrious individuals may find a way to profit from the minerals being delivered, including the salt.
At first it was a novelty as a wall of water an inch high began flowing down the wash a few feet below me. Soon there was several feet of rushing water sweeping away anything in its path and there was no place to go.
2. Flash Floods.
Rain in deserts can cause flash floods. This is normal and unpleasant. Expecting this allows for the situation to be worked around. Flash floods come when water is rained onto desert ground which is dry and devoid of plants. Consistent rainfall will allow plants to grow, which will slow the water flow. To alleviate this some geographic modifications can be accomplished to slow the flow of the rainwater, which will encourage better usage of the water along its path. This needs to be accomplished at the local level foresighted individuals and communities.
USA, California, Death Valley Salt Pan photographed by Gary Weathers.
3. Death Valley National Park.
The dry saltpan at the floor of Death Valley National Park will change from a dry lakebed to an inland salt sea. It is expected that this inland sea will become hypersaline. It can remain a National Park, but its features will be slightly changed, and it will likely see heavier use because of the new features. It still will be the lowest place in USA, but likely not the hottest as the increased moisture will cool the area.
Desert ecosystems receive less than 10 in (250 mm) of annual precipitation. Far from desolate, the deserts support high levels of biodiversity including iconic species such as Joshua trees, Mexican free-tailed bats, desert pupfishes, cutthroat trout, pronghorn antelope, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, sage grouse, bighorn sheep, desert iguanas, bristlecone pines, cuckoos, ocotillo, desert poppies, saguaro cactus, kangaroo rats and pigmy rabbits. Desert biodiversity is the result of evolutionary divergence.
4. Existing Ecosystems.
Some have complained that the increased moisture would harm the existing ecosystems within the SW-USA, The Great Basin, Death Valley and in all the deserts which are rehydrated. When viewed with a different eye one can consider that the local critters are those who have not died out and would like a bit more rain. Yes, some of the critters who used to live there, but left when the water left, will return. That is only the natural ebb and flow of critters and ecosystems as a whole.
The West Desert Pumping Station is a series of three pumps designed to reduce the water level of the Great Salt Lake in case it should rise to threaten the shoreline industries, Salt Lake City International Airport, railroads, and even I-80 with flooding. The pumping plan is a system to pump water from the lake to the adjacent Newfoundland Basin, located to the west. The south end of Hogup Ridge, a few miles further down the causeway northwest of Lakeside, was selected as the pump site, and six and a half miles of canals were dug to and from the pumps. Completed rapidly in less than a year, at a cost of nearly $60 million in state funds, the pumps went online in April 1987. At the same time, a drought began, causing the lake level to subside naturally. The pumps were mothballed in 1989.
5. Overfilling The Great Salt Lake.
Yes, there can be too much of a good thing. It is possible that the hydrology of The Great Basin will be improved to the point that the Great Salt Lake could exceed its historical maximum, which could flood the communities built along its shore. Fortunately, there is a plan already installed, but mothballed in 1989: The Great Salt Lake Pumping Station. But even this may not be enough, and a plan for a canal should be made to direct excess water far enough from the Great Salt Lake so that it flows by gravity back toward Death Valey.
The overdrawing of freshwater from Colorado River has been and is detrimental to the environment, creating a desert where once was a fertile river delta, and breaking a hydrologic cycle. This has and is making itself known by the shrinking size of the Great Salt Lake. To make that wrong right the drawing of water from the Colorado River water should stop. We all know that is not even thinkable. The people using the Colorado River water will not give up their water without a huge fight. Move the Water! provides a workaround which allows no change in the use of the Colorado River water yet repairs our ecosystem and makes the landscape greener in the process. This proposed infrastructure project should be undertaken with all haste to repair our environment and return water indirectly and by natural processes to The Great Salt Lake. There is no real downside to doing this project. If an unforeseen consequence occurs, the project can be moderated by reducing the volume of water moved into Death Valley.
Move the Water! is the proposed initiative of Active Climate Rescue Initiative. Active Climate Rescue Initiative is founded to actively rescue our climate by encouraging positive climate change through water relocation into earth’s water deficit areas. Anyplace in the world where there is a dry depression is a place where there is a moisture deficit. These places are the key to reversing climate change. By infusing these places with water from an open flow inlet, moisture can be reintroduced into the local environment through hydrologic processes. Active Climate Rescue Initiative is a Michigan Non-Profit Corporation approved by the USA IRS as a 501.c.3 Public Charity.
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- Whiteman, C. David (2000). Mountain Meteorology: Fundamentals and Applications. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513271-8.