The Great Salt Lake is disappearing. If we don’t fix it, we’ll pay the cost with our health and economy, Robert Gehrke says

The lake is sending us a message to act now.

The Great Salt Lake is Utah’s canary in a coal mine — except you can see it from space.

In July of this year, the lake reached a historic low, sitting 10 feet below its average level, exposing vast swathes of dry lake bed, making the marina unusable for most boating and jeopardizing the industries that rely on it.

My colleague, Brian Maffly, wrote this week about the shocking time-lapse photos that drive home in graphic detail the waning of the largest inland body of saltwater in the Western Hemisphere.

It is indeed a harbinger, warning us of the trouble we could face if we fail to listen.

The decline of the Great Salt Lake is not, contrary to popular belief, due to our ongoing “megadrought,” although it’s not helping. The truth is that diversions of water upstream for residential and agricultural use mean not enough water even makes it downstream to replenish the lake.

A study by Utah State University found that the lake is 11 feet lower than it would be were it not for the diversions and that 130% of the water available is already allocated.

As a result, for four months this year, none of the water in the Bear River even reached the lake. Barring a monumental change in northern Utah’s snowpack, that trend will continue. The lake will continue to shrink, and the ramifications of its disappearance will grow.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

A study back in 2012 found that the Great Salt Lake generated $1.3 billion to the state economy through mineral extraction, brine shrimp harvesting and recreation. All of that is threatened.

By mid-July of this year, ordinarily a peak time for sailing, boaters were already hauling their boats out of the lake because the water level was too low for boats to access the docks.

This week, the head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources told legislators they plan to use a part of $5 million in federal funds to dredge the marina in hopes of keeping it viable.

The wetlands surrounding the lake are one of the most important migratory bird habitats in North America, annually welcoming some 250 species and millions of birds to feed and nest at the lake.

The dry, dusty lake bed exposed by the receding water is prone to dust storms, impacting human health, according to Kevin Perry, a University of Utah professor who has studied the phenomenon.

There are immediate health effects, with the tiny dust particles that can make it hard to breathe, especially for those who might have asthma or other breathing problems.

Then there are potential long-term effects. Soil samples from all over the lake bed have elevated levels of arsenic, Perry said, which can cause cancer if there is prolonged exposure.

The Great Salt Lake is not unique in facing these challenges. We’ve seen the same story play out elsewhere.

Urmia Lake in Iran, the Aral Sea in central Asia, Lake Poopó in Bolivia, Owens Lake and the Salton Sea in California, and the Dead Sea in Israel are examples of similar lakes that have all but disappeared, according to a 2019 report by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.

The disappearances of these bodies of water have wiped out ecosystems, subjected locals to frequent dust storms, decimated economies and have cost millions and in some cases billions of dollars in attempted remediations.

Can we save our iconic lake and avoid the same consequences?

Maybe, but it will require a significant change to our state’s entire approach to water use, starting with ditching our use-it-or-lose-it water policy. Currently, water has to be put to “beneficial use” — meaning it yields some economic or agricultural return — or the holder of the water rights can lose them. Conserving water and preserving the lake is not considered a beneficial use.

If we make conservation a priority or at least on equal footing as agriculture, conservation groups and governments can start dedicating water rights for the lake.

(Lindsay D'Addato | The New York Times) A dried up dock on the Great Salt Lake in Antelope Island, Utah on Aug. 25, 2021. A red-hot economy, wildfire smoke and the shriveling of the Great Salt Lake are making Utah’s alarming air pollution even worse.

Perhaps most importantly, Utah needs to push pause on the Bear River Development Project — a system of reservoirs and pipelines that will divert water for northern Utah residents.

“Bear River [development] will be the destruction of the Great Salt Lake,” Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council told me this week. “It will dry up the Great Salt Lake beyond modern recognition.”

It makes sense. If water diversions are what is threatening the lake, we can’t stick another straw in upriver and not expect it to have consequences. Proponents claim it will cause the lake to fall by less than a foot. Maybe. But there is no question it will exacerbate a serious problem to provide water that may not even be needed for years.

More generally, we need to get serious about conservation. Utah is among the driest states in the country but uses the second-most water per capita. And our water is cheap, a pricing structure that actively discourages conservation.

That’s simply unsustainable, given Utah’s rate of growth.

That means taking a hard look at agricultural uses, the consumer of the vast majority of water in the state. Last week, the Utah Department of Natural Resources told legislators they plan on using $25 million in federal money to meter secondary water statewide. Secondary water, where it’s not metered (which is most places), is either free or given away at a flat rate, regardless of how much a customer uses — think of it as an all-you-can-eat buffet for water users. It’s long overdue and still not enough, but it’s a start.

And The Utah League of Cities and Towns is recommending legislation that would encourage cities to integrate water into their general plans — things like landscaping requirements and development permits — with an eye toward sustainability.

On Jan. 5, House Speaker Brad Wilson will convene a Great Salt Lake Summit. It’s an encouraging sign that top leaders are aware of the problem and focusing on salvaging the lake.

But there also has to be the political will to make the hard decisions and fundamentally reshape how Utah thinks about water, not just to preserve the Great Salt Lake but to save our water resources and our communities across Utah.