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These are the 10 reasons Utahns can save the Great Salt Lake, a state official says

Speakers at a three-day forum expressed hope for the lake’s future, and listed the things Utahns can do that others haven’t to protect and sustain the Great Salt Lake.

(Megan Banta | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fremont Island during a flyover of the Great Salt Lake with EcoFlight on Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

Utahns know the challenge ahead to save the Great Salt Lake is “daunting — so much so that nobody else in the world has gotten it right,” said Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

The ailing Great Salt Lake has been shrinking consistently for over a decade and hasn’t reached an elevation of 4,198 feet — its minimum level in the healthy range — since 2002.

Elevation in the south arm was up to 4,195 feet on Friday afternoon, as measured at the Saltair Boat Harbor. That’s a yard short of healthy but, according to officials, is a much better level for the lake’s ecology.

Hasenyager gave reasons to hope for a healthy lake during the final informational session of the biennial Great Salt Lake Issues Forum, which concluded Friday at the University of Utah Guest House and Conference Center.

Over three days, most speakers expressed hope for the lake’s future. Hasenyager tied those ideas into a bow, listing 10 reasons Utah can do what others haven’t by protecting and sustaining the Great Salt Lake.

1. Unprecedented legislative support and funding

Support is coming from the highest levels, Hasenyager said.

The past three years have brought “amazing” work, she said, from water policy changes to investment in the lake and water conservation.

In the 2024 legislative session, lawmakers passed bills reining in mineral extraction, tweaking irrigation incentives and studying whether it’s feasible to move more water from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake.

2. New tools

Tools allowing such things as splitting leases and water banking allow for more flexibility as the state engineer moves water, Hasenyager said.

She also cited recognition of “saved water” (the amount of water use reduced when farmers or other water users improve the efficiency of their equipment) and water marketing.

The latter strategy allows officials to apply market principles — like leasing, buying and selling — to reallocate water usage and address local supply and demand conditions.

3. Expanded research and data

Hasenyager specifically cited the findings of a gap analysis by Jacobs Engineering Group. That 78-page document looked to “identify the strengths of current programs, gaps in available resources, and opportunities for capacity development” related to the Great Salt Lake Basin Integrated Plan.

“Yes, there are things we don’t know, but it is impressive to see the amount of work and research that has gone into all of the different activities around Great Salt Lake,” she said.

She also gave a shout-out to the Great Salt Lake Strike Team, a group of researchers, state employees and other experts to provide data and research to help the state make informed decisions about the lake.

4. Increased measurement

Measuring water is a “critical piece” to manage it and know where it’s going, Hasenyager said, and there are efforts underway to add more monitoring tools.

She pointed specifically to a contract between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Survey that she said will install $3 million worth of water monitoring, and work to get Army Corps of Engineers funding for further tools.

5. Supersized education and outreach

Hasenyager said she thinks there’s been a “pretty amazing” amount of communication about the lake.

“It’s almost like people were out there in the ‘70s when they were talking about flower power and that kind of stuff,” she said

She gave specific shout-outs to the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, programs like Slow the Flow and groups like Friends of Great Salt Lake.

6. Strategic planning for the future

There’s a “significant amount of planning going on” about the future of the lake and its watershed, Hasenyager said.

She’s heard people ask why these efforts didn’t happen 10 years ago, and referenced a Chinese proverb in response.

“If you didn’t plant a tree 20 years ago, the next best time to plant it is today,” she said. “We’re doing it.”

7. Office of the Great Salt Lake Commissioner

Hasenyager compared the state’s efforts before Utah formed the Office of the Great Salt Lake Commissioner to a cooking show.

There were 10 or so different state agencies with roles related to the lake, she said — a lot of cooks in the kitchen. One might be working on chili and another on cheesecake, she said, and those are good on their own.

“Then they’re trying to put them together and that’s just not good for anybody,” Hasenyager said.

The commissioner’s office makes sure those state agencies are coordinating their work related to the lake, she said. She said she occasionally, and jokingly, says, “Yes, chef” to Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed.

8. Successful reduction of water usage across all sectors

There have been investments in optimizing agriculture usage, there are thousands of secondary water meters going in, and the “carrot” of landscaping incentives in cities that adopt water efficiency standards is working, Hasenyager said.

Utah can’t “pit one water use against another,” she said, and everyone needs to continue working to reduce water usage.

9. ‘Merciful Mother Nature’

A record snowpack last year and above-average snowpack so this winter have given Utah a reprieve, Hasenyager said.

Some programs will take time to implement, she said, though the extra time isn’t an excuse to slow efforts.

“It’s just given us a little time to get all of these programs and things done,” she said. “It does not mean we take our foot off the gas.”

10. ‘All of you’

Hasenyager showed a slide with photos and selfies of people from across the state and various sectors doing work to save the Great Salt Lake.

The state knows efforts go beyond those pictures that could fit on the slide, though, and the Utah Division of Water Resources is inviting people to show their own efforts.

Hasenyager encouraged people to take a selfie of their own work to help the Great Salt Lake and send it to the department on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram and other social media platforms.

She closed out with a quote from Wallace Stegner’s “The Sound of Mountain Water” encouraging optimism in the “native home of hope” and highlighting that cooperation will give the West “a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”