New analysis shows heavy financial cost and heavy energy cost
A new study by BYU engineers shows just how much it will cost, and how much energy it will take, to save the Great Salt Lake by pumping water in from the Pacific Ocean.
The analysis finds that pumping just one-third of the water needed to restore the Great Salt Lake through a single large-diameter pipeline from the ocean would require 400 megawatts of electricity — an amount equivalent to that produced by a large power plant — and a whopping 11% of Utah’s annual electricity demand.
It would also cost over $300 million annually to operate the system, according to what authors said are very conservative estimates, and would emit nearly one million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, the equivalent to the emissions of 200,000 passenger vehicles. That is all on top of the likely multibillion-dollar cost to build the pipeline.
“The figures could easily triple with a longer pipeline route, mountainous terrain, higher flows, multiple pipelines or less efficient pumps,” said Rob Sowby, BYU professor of civil engineering and lead author on the analysis. “To put it mildly, there are serious challenges to this approach.”
The Great Salt Lake has receded significantly in recent years, reaching an all-time low in 2022. A potential pipeline from the Pacific Ocean is one of many alternatives proposed to rescue the lake. The pipeline would have to pump water roughly 600 miles inland with an elevation gain of 4,200 feet, not accounting for additional complications to traverse major mountain ranges along the route.
Sowby and fellow BYU professors Gus Williams and Andrew South used fundamental equations of hydraulics and pump equations for power demand to compute the energy needed to lift water from sea level to lake level and overcome friction. But their estimate doesn’t include any additional costs for planning, land acquisition, design, construction, permitting, finance or other maintenance costs.
“While the idea sounds extreme, so are the circumstances, some argue, and all options should be kept open,” Williams said. “That said, we’re not providing an opinion on the necessity or feasibility of such a project; our analysis is to inform Great Salt Lake stakeholders, decision makers and the public on what the costs could be.”
While the authors don’t offer up their opinions on the feasibility of this option in this paper, Sowby has shared his thoughts in a separate opinion piece published in September in the journal Earth.
He said policymakers should first look to alternatives within the watershed. In his opinion, Utah already has the resources here at home to restore the lake, but it will take a paradigm shift in water resource planning in Utah: instead of letting water demands dictate water policy, he said, water supply must dictate planning.
“After years of neglect, the Great Salt Lake is starving not just for water but for attention,” Sowby said. “Facing an environmental crisis, we are compelled to rethink our relationship with the Great Salt Lake, to treat it like the precious asset it is rather than as a casual afterthought.”