Great Salt Lake can be saved, but only with some big changes, report says

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Researchers gather rock-like structures along the shores of at the Great Salt Lake that are formed by cyanobacteria known as microbialites in this file photo from November 2017. The lake's declining levels have exposed these structures, along with hundreds of square miles of lakebed, raising concerns about the lake's future. On Tuesday, an advisory panel urged 12 measures to conserve water and ensure sufficient flows reach the terminal lake to preserve its ecological integrity.

Bold water conservation strategies and changes in long-standing law and water policies are needed to slow the alarming shrinking of the Great Salt Lake, according to recommendation released Tuesday by an advisory panel.

Upstream diversions have long prevented vast quantities from replenishing the lake, reducing the lake by half its normal size with further declines predicted.

The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, empaneled by the Utah Legislature in 2010, fears the lake’s steady contraction is putting at risk a singular ecosystem that supports $1.3 billion in economic activity associated with brine shrimp, mineral extraction and recreation and provides an essential resting and nesting refuge for millions of migrating birds.

The council’s latest report describes 12 “actionable” measures that could keep the Great Salt Lake from evaporating into a dusty playa, a fate that has befallen many terminal lakes around the world, including Utah’s Sevier Lake.

“With Great Salt Lake water level declines of up to 11 feet due to Utahns’ use of water, we all need to take action, and quickly,” said Don Leonard, chairman of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. “The strategies listed in the report provide opportunities at both a community and legislative level to effect change.”

The recommendations include changing water law to recognize a legal right to conserved water, ensuring sufficient stream flows to the lake and improved coordination among stakeholders.

The 11-member council prepared the 137-page report in response to a 2019 legislative resolution acknowledging the importance of adequate flows into the lake. HCR10 called for the creation of “an overall policy that supports effective administration of water flow to Great Salt Lake to maintain or increase lake levels, while appropriately balancing economic, social, and environmental needs, including the need to sustain working agricultural land.”

At the time, state environmental protection officials warned that the lake’s ecological collapse could lead to economic losses ranging from $1.7 billion to $2.2 billion a year and 6,500 jobs, much of that associated with extraction of magnesium, potash, salts and other minerals from the lake’s brines.

Key drivers in the declines are drought and upstream diversions that keep water from reaching the lake through the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers. The council’s recommendations are geared toward keeping minimal flows on those rivers to ensure enough water reaches the Great Salt Lake to prevent an ecological catastrophe.

The report was compiled by the Salt Lake City law firm Clyde Snow, which solicited strategies submitted anonymously by the public. Of 70 strategies identified through this process, the council selected 12 to embrace with the hope of stopping and perhaps reversing the lake’s decline, according to Leonard.

“There is always hope. Measures taken so far show people are willing and able to conserve. We have barely scratched the surface of conservation opportunities,” said Leonard, president of the Utah Artemia Association which represents the brine shrimpers. “It would also be nice to have help from Mother Nature.”

Not making the cut were steps long urged by environmental activists, such as scaling back the proposed Bear River water project and eliminating subsidies that keep water prices artificially low.

The stakes are huge, not just for the industries that rely on the lake, but also for the lake’s biological integrity and the quality of life it supports, according to Westminster College professor Bonnie Baxter. She co-edited the forthcoming book, titled “Great Salt Lake Biology: a terminal lake in a time of change,” whose 16 chapters are all framed around the question of the lake’s dropping levels.

As the lake shrinks, its salt concentrations rise, affecting the lake’s chemistry and altering the communities of organisms that inhabit its waters, from microbes to migratory birds.

“Salinity is the major driver of the ecosystem,” she said. “The biology would be significantly disrupted because as less water reaches the lake, the salinity goes up and that means different microbes will grow.”

The invertebrates will in turn be displaced and the effects will ripple up the food chain.

“The brine shrimp and brine flies depend on the microbial community, they provide food for the next layer of the food web, the birds,” Baxter continued. “It is indeed a cascading effect that could lead to the decimation of this entire ecosystem. Less water for shorebirds means their habitat moves based on their leg lengths.”

Modeling suggest that even with “extreme” conservation measures, the Great Salt Lake could still drop another 1.5 feet.

“If things don’t change, the level could drop 11 feet,” she said. “It is such a shallow lake, one foot is a big deal, much less 11 feet.”

Topping the advisory council’s list of recommendations is a proposal to recognize irrigators’ rights to water they save through conservation. Under Western water law, water users lose the rights to water they don’t put to “beneficial use,” creating a huge disincentive to conserve.

“Water conservation efforts will be a cornerstone strategy to meeting the realities of the future and ‘stretching’ Utah’s limited water supply,” the report’s summary states. “Establishing a legal right to conserved water provides the incentive to engage in these efforts.”

The report also urges quantifying how much water users are conserving and requiring meters on secondary water, the untreated water many northern Utah residents use on landscaping with almost no restriction. One pilot program found a 25% decrease in consumption by residences once their use was metered. Also encouraged was the use of “split season” water rights where a portion of a right that is not used during irrigation season can be made available for instream flows.

The council is likewise pushing for more efficient use of water by agriculture, which accounts for about 80% of the state’s overall consumption. But water saved by farmers won’t do much to help the lake without significant changes in Utah water law, which the report urges lawmakers to consider.

“To ensure water rights intended for Great Salt Lake uses get to the lake, they must be first recognized as a legitimate beneficial use of water and then shepherded through the local water system,” it states. “To ensure other water users along the way do not take instream flows intended for lake uses to satisfy their own rights, there must be a legal recognition of an instream flow that sits in a similar standing with other appropriated water rights.”

The report went on to urge changes in the law that would allow state agencies and nonprofits to acquire rights, through donation, purchase or lease, to water that would remain in streams, ultimately reaching the Great Salt Lake, whose value to Utah is finally being recognized by policymakers after decades of neglect.