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Opinion: Cedar City project would harm the Great Salt Lake

We must not forget: What happens to West Desert water impacts the Great Salt Lake

SHARE Opinion: Cedar City project would harm the Great Salt Lake
Signs showing the current water lever at the Great Salt Lake Marina is pictured during a rainstorm on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in Great Salt Lake Marina.

Signs showing the current water lever at the Great Salt Lake Marina are pictured during a rainstorm on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Great Salt Lake Marina.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Pine Valley and Wah Wah Valley — stunning West Desert basins in a remote patch of Beaver County — are some 200 miles from the Great Salt Lake, as the crow flies.

However, the hydraulic connections between the capital city and the West Desert are much closer than the mileage demonstrates. As water officials in Cedar City advocate for a dangerous water grab just southeast of Great Basin National Park, we must not forget: What happens to West Desert water impacts the Great Salt Lake.

For 30 years, Utahns fought in a united front when the Southern Nevada Water Authority wanted to build its Las Vegas pipeline, which would have exported water from Snake Valley and groundwater basins in Nevada to sin city. Locals here said it often: The groundwater Vegas wanted didn’t exist because Utah communities were already using it.

During those water wars, public officials at all levels in Utah respected and recognized the connectivity between the heart of the Great Basin and the Great Salt Lake. But now it seems like we have a case of amnesia.

The Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is tellingits ratepayers and local residents to believe a water export project costing hundreds of millions is worth it — hoping to sell an expensive and unnecessary effort that amounts to nothing more than inducing more development.

Salt Lake residents may not care that CICWCD’s project will hike water bills, encourage more water waste in Iron County, and harm West Desert communities. However, Salt Lake residents must respect this: The Iron County project will ultimately take groundwater away from beneath the Great Salt Lake.

Distance should not mitigate the fears of this project. Unbiased USGS modeling shows that project pumping in Pine and Wah Wah valleys could affect a 10,000 square mile region. Yes, groundwater in the West Desert moves slowly on its journey to the Great Salt Lake. But the slow flow doesn’t preclude hydrologically quick and noticeable effects in aquifers pumped down by a massive water project.

Is limiting flows into the lake a risk the community is willing to stomach? Salt Lake’s leaders must stand up against this project at the federal and state level.

Salt Lake City’s love affair with its eponymous water body seems to grow by the day. Some of this is likely because absence makes the heart grow fonder. The Great Salt Lake’s levels are hovering near record lows. We know it is likely to get worse over time. Yet, today state water officials ignore what they conceded during the fight with Vegas: The West Desert and Great Salt Lake are hydraulically connected.

This month, federal officials released an environmental review for the 70-mile pipeline and pumping project that’s riddled with misleading hydrologic analysis that — among many other problems — ignores the Great Salt Lake.

As proposed by Iron County water officials, the first two phases of the Cedar City plan promise to pump and pipe nearly 9 billion gallons of water annually from Pine and Wah Wah valleys. The USGS estimates that only 3.5 billion gallons may exist between the two valleys.

The basic math doesn’t lie. There is more water on paper for this project than exists in the aquifers below the West Desert. Of the water that does exist below ground, some of it is from the Pleistocene epoch, more than 20,000 years old. Once it’s gone it won’t come back.

We believe Cedar City has, for decades, overdrawn its own water supply without implementing any meaningful conservation measures. And now, instead of looking inward, officials are looking to drill wells in Beaver County that tap aquifers tied to the lake.

More than ever, we need to trust that the Great Salt Lake’s presence is bigger than what the eye can capture above the surface. Like the relationship between West Desert groundwater and Great Salt Lake surface water, we must recognize that we are all connected. If we fail to recognize that today, the water will be gone — and with it all that we love about the lake.

Please visit www.greatbasinwater.org to learn how you can act to protect West Desert water.

Kyle Roerink is executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. Steve Erickson is a longtime activist for peace and economic and environmental justice.