SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced a series of new conservation efforts. Here’s how they could help the Great Salt Lake.

Experts and advocates say the moves represent a step in the right direction for Utah’s capital.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. Mayor Erin Mendenhall has announced measures aimed at curbing consumption and keeping water in the lake.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall made a splash at her recent State of the City address when she revealed a trio of water conservation initiatives.

The mayor announced plans to ensure the city’s treated wastewater will flow into the shrinking Great Salt Lake, raise water prices on the service area’s highest-volume users, and conduct a top-to-bottom review of city water use.

Experts and advocates say the moves represent a step in the right direction for Utah’s capital, but it’s going to take more than one community to save the city’s namesake ecological feature.

Mendenhall said her directive to alter the city’s rights to its treated wastewater will protect that water source from the constant threat of being diverted from the lake for other uses.

“We have to exercise our ability to secure those water rights now,” the mayor said, “so that the pressure of development and the economic interests of future industries don’t co-opt what the lake needs.”

The change would not put any new water into the lake (almost all of the nearly 13 billion gallons that the city treats annually already flows to Farmington Bay), but it would substantially shift the municipality’s long-range water resources plan.

Contributions won’t be permanent

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

Laura Briefer, director of the city’s public utilities, said her department needs new water resources by 2040 — and treated wastewater, new groundwater wells or additional surface water were all on the menu.

The change Mendenhall is calling for would take wastewater out of consideration for future use.

“This is a generational decision point,” Briefer said, “for us to benefit the lake.”

Briefer said the city is still looking at how best to adjust water rights to boost the lake. Officials have a few options under state law, but none of them is permanent.

Water rights attorney Steven Clyde said the city can’t dedicate the water to the Great Salt Lake in perpetuity because the Utah Constitution prevents cities from disposing of their water rights, so there isn’t anything to stop a future administration from rededicating the water to another purpose.

Briefer said having flexibility to file another change for the water rights is a good thing because it allows the city to repurpose the water if lake levels bounce back in the future.

Clyde said the city’s pending commitment is a big deal, and he’s happy to see officials pursuing it.

“While it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of Great Salt Lake,” Clyde said, “it’s a big drop in the bucket in terms of a pretty consistent water supply.”

When Mendenhall’s change takes effect — and as long as it stays in effect — the 35 million gallons of water the treatment plant processes daily will be guaranteed to make it to the lake without facing the threat of being siphoned for other uses.

“It’s a very worthwhile measure to take, recognizing that the water that the [lake is] already getting needs to be protected and formalized,” Brigham Young University ecology professor Ben Abbott said. “It is under threat.”

Abbott said having a yearslong commitment of sending wastewater to the lake — even if it isn’t a permanent measure — still helps, especially while the lake faces a crisis period to prevent further declines.

Scrutinizing the system, upping the price

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall delivers her State of the City address at Woodbine Food Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.

Abbott said Mendenhall’s other initiatives, like a thorough audit of the city’s use, will also contribute to the larger effort to save the lake.

He said it’s important to know where water is being used, where it’s being wasted, and how much of it is lost in transit. While those questions sound basic, he said, answering them can be hard to do.

“To identify where we need to focus to free up enough water to save the lake,” he said, “this is a really helpful step.”

Briefer said an audit of the city’s water system would take about six months. She wants to hire an outside consultant to do the job.

Mendenhall said a granular review of city water usage is the next step on water conservation in Utah’s capital.

“Now we’re realizing that the lake, our environment, it needs so much more than simple conservation,” she said. “And this is a long-term need that we have to focus on — to the point of reevaluating our systems, not just our actions.”

Mendenhall also aims to curb consumption from businesses and residents by upping the price of water �� via a drought surcharge — on high-volume consumers. The surcharge would fluctuate with the severity of the drought and disappear if or when Utah emerges from the dry spell.

It makes sense for the city to have pricing flexibility, Mendenhall said, in case officials don’t see enough conservation or if lake levels improve over time.

Briefer said a surcharge would also help cover revenue losses from increased conservation.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said a surcharge is a good concept, but tying prices to drought severity potentially jeopardizes the region’s ability to save and store water for dry years.

The Wasatch Front is only going to get drier, Roerink warned, so policies should not be based on whether a water year is good or bad. Water pricing, he said, should be consistent and reflect that arid trend.

“What we need in communities across the Great Basin right now are folks who are just constantly living like they live in a desert,” Roerink said. “There should be no reversion to behaviors that the community was participating in in the 1980s. It’s time to come to grips with reality.”

Regional progress

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake shoreline continues to shrink as more of the shallow lakebed is uncovered during ongoing drought conditions on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.

Roerink said Salt Lake City can set a new standard, but it has a long way to go to make meaningful contributions to the lake through conservation.

While the new steps are important and shouldn’t be discounted, he said, they reflect difficult political realities.

“Fixing the Great Salt Lake, or any water body in the West, means that we have to fix our behaviors as humans,” he said. “Until we understand that our behaviors have to change in order for our water systems to change for the better, we are not doing everything that we need to do.”

Abbott, the BYU ecologist, said Mendenhall’s initiatives are important and will contribute to the overall effort to protect the lake. City plans, he said, will hopefully help water conservation easier to swallow for other Utahns.

“The agricultural community is going to have to make fundamental changes to how they operate,” Abbott said. “And that is going to be a lot more feasible and palatable if they see that we city slickers are making the cuts that we can.”

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