But when your state is on the precipice of an ecological disaster — in this case, the disappearance of the Great Salt Lake — you don’t have any choice other than to consider all alternatives. And, who knows? What sounds outlandish today could end up saving us all, even if it involves portable nuclear reactors.
After all, we’re close to the edge of a cliff.
Few people, Republican or Democrat, disagree. A recent poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found 80% of Utahns at least somewhat concerned about the lake drying up. The key to a life-supporting environment in a metro area of roughly 2.5 million people hangs in the balance. We have to do something.
So, a little out-of-box thinking might be called for.
Earlier this year the Legislative Water Development Commission issued a set of possible recommendations. One was to pipe water from the Pacific Ocean to the lake, a journey of more than 600 miles that includes a 14,505-foot tall Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
Now we have another idea on the table. Rep. Steven Lund, a Republican from Manti who has made his living in the oil and gas industry, wants the state to think about drilling many thousands of feet below the great basin and bringing up salt water sealed away in deep aquifers.
This water would then be desalinated and sent through the normal tributaries that feed the lake. Unlike the idea of pumping ocean water, this would not upset the lake’s natural ecology, and Lund believes the right number of wells, say 3,100 or so, using modern horizontal drilling technology, could refill the lake in about a year.
I know what you’re thinking, and Lund doesn’t disagree.
“This will be extremely expensive,” he told me. Also, there are uncertainties, just as there are with drilling for oil or any other natural resource. “You don’t know what you’re drilling into until you drill into it.”
But Lund has data that shows the water is there, and that it flows through the sandstone far underground.
In October, he told an interim meeting of the Legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee that the state could use modular molten salt nuclear reactors to extract salt from the water — reactors that could be moved around by large semi trucks.
Matthew Memmott, an associate professor of chemical engineering at BYU, told the committee these units would not be prone to the dangers associated with conventional nuclear reactors. They could extract about 10 megawatts of electricity per unit while desalinating the water, and about 86 of the units together could provide enough water to fill Lake Powell “from top to bottom” in 14 months.
Lund said he doesn’t want taxpayers on the hook for all of this. If it works, the private sector could get involved, taking advantage of the minerals that might be extracted along with the water.
“We shouldn’t look at this as a silo for just healing the Great Salt Lake,” he said.
Lund told the committee he believes these deep acquifers cover much of the Great Basin. Four wells dug at strategic points in the Great Basin bear this out, he said. In addition to filling the Great Salt Lake, he envisions eventually processing enough water to provide for much of the state through a system of pipelines.
At the moment, Lund admits “it’s a little early for enthusiastic support” from other lawmakers. He admits he isn’t certain the plan would work.
“But,” he said, “the other side of the equation is what do we do with the Great Salt Lake?”
Which is the question hanging over the heads of everyone in Utah right now.
This part of the world is prone to drought. But a UCLA-led study published in the journal Nature Climate Change last year determined this is the worst drought in the Western United States in at least 1,200 years.
It has forged on for 22 years now, and it isn’t letting up. The latest figures from drought.gov still show 90.9% of Utah in the “severe drought” category.
Politicians have some weapons left in their conventional arsenals, such as incentivizing greater conservation, removing tax-supports for water companies and perhaps even recycling wastewater.
But the ultimate solution — several years of above-average rain — is beyond anyone’s control. And so, the risk of doing nothing right now makes some unusual ideas seem at least worth further study.