For years as the Great Salt Lake gradually, almost imperceptibly shrank, few Utahns cared or even noticed as the shoreline receded.
The lake has always been there and will always be there, most assumed. But last summer, House Speaker Brad Wilson, one of Utah’s most prominent political leaders, had an epiphany after the Great Salt Lake hit its lowest level on record and he heard a Radio West episode devoted to the economic and ecological consequences of the lake’s demise.
“I was terrified,” the Wilson said Wednesday at the Great Salt Lake Summit he hosted in Layton. “I texted my chief of staff and I said, ‘We need to talk about the Great Salt Lake differently and more aggressively. This is serious and we have to do something. … The lake needs to have more awareness brought to it…. We need to have more action relative to preserving and maintaining and even enhancing the Great Salt Lake.”
In 175 years of record keeping, the elevation of Great Salt Lake last fall dipped to an all-time low of 4,190.2 feet above sea level, leaving 763 square miles of lake bed exposed to wind, altering the lake’s chemistry, and leaving wetlands drained. Upstream water diversions on three river systems are largely responsible for the declines, abetted by long-term drought.
In the months since, a bipartisan consensus has coalesced around rescuing the saline body that has long been dismissed as a smelly, dead waste. Utah’s political leaders for the first time are clamoring for policy changes and investments that would allow more water to reach the terminal lake whose contributions to the state’s quality of life are coming into focus as the state risks losing them.
Wilson, a Kaysville Republican whose district includes much of the lake, convened Wednesday’s summit to highlight the perils the lake faces, what’s at stake for Utah, and potential solutions. The summit’s dense agenda featured academic scientists, politicians and agency staff, while environmental activists were largely excluded from the podium.
“It’s up to us whether the lake remains great or whether it becomes a dust bowl,” said Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Bountiful. “The good news is the lake is healthy and it’s functioning. There’s duck hunting, there’s migratory birds. There’s still industry out there. The lake is still doing what we need it to do, but the reason that we’re worried is because we are testing thresholds that we haven’t seen before.”
As the lake level drops, the water is becoming increasingly saline and therefore less hospitable to brine shrimp that form the basis of the food chain. And as more lakebed is exposed, vast colonies of microbialites, rock-like structures formed by micro-organisms, are at risk of dying.
Fed mostly by inflows from the Bear River, Great Salt Lake supports thriving brine shrimp and mineral extraction industries, not to mention millions of migratory birds. All of the magnesium produced in the United States and 40% of the world’s supply of brine shrimp eggs, used to raise prawns, come from the Great Salt Lake.
And as it shrinks, its exposed lakebed becomes an increasingly larger, more dangerous source of dust emissions, according to snow hydrologist McKenzie Skiles, a University of Utah professor of geography who studies accumulations of dust in the Wasatch snowpack.
Her research has shown dust coming from Utah’s dry lakebeds is darkening the snow, causing it to melt sooner.
“We want to keep snow melting slowly in the spring because that allows us to fill our reservoirs, that allow us to use that water efficiently,” she said. “When we accelerate snowmelt, that means we can lose more of it to evaporation.”
That also impacts the economy because it shortens Utah’s famous ski season.
“Nobody wants to ski on dirty snow. It’s not fun,” Skiles said. “And so we want to keep that snowpack clean and people coming back and enjoying skiing and bringing those dollars into our economy.”
Reducing water use and allowing the savings to reach the lake is an obvious solution, but conservation has to be done thoughtfully, or we risk worsening the lake’s condition, according to Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which draws from one of the lake’s biggest tributaries.
“Water conservation in and of itself has to be done responsibly and particularly when we’re talking about the Great Salt Lake,” he said. “If we conserve too much to the point where we’re consuming all water without any return flow or much to the Great Salt Lake, we are going to impact the lake.”
He pushed back against the idea that saving the lake will require abandoning future water diversions.
“The population growth that we’re going to to experience here comes with a responsibility to ensure that there’s a drinking water supply,” he said. “To think that all water development should stop at this point seems to be folly.”
Flint’s district is among the four participating in the Bear River project, which seeks to capture up to 225,000 acre-feet of the Bear River’s annual flow, a proposal environmentalists are fighting because of its potential impact on the lake.
Flint contends metering secondary water, the untreated water many Davis and Weber county residents use on their landscaping, would be the single most-important step the state could take.
“We feel that it’s time to do statewide secondary water metering, such that there’s accountability for all users. ....All should be accountable and we all ought to be aware of how much we’re using and how we could do better,” Flint said. “It’s a simple matter of an informed customer is going to be a more responsible customer.”
Secondary metering, according to most plans, would only apply to residential and industrial water use, not to agriculture. With agriculture using 80% of Utah’s water resources, farms will play a key role in saving the lake. And staying in business is the best thing they could do, according to Rep. Joel Ferry, a Box Elder County farmer.
Agriculture holds the most senior water rights in the state, but under Western water law, Utah farmers have little incentive to conserve because they are virtually guaranteed a certain amount of water which they risk losing if they don’t use it.
One solution he is championing is creating a system that rewards farmers to forgo water in drought years by allowing them to be compensated for unused water that remains in the environment as “instream flows.”
“It’s not going to be the silver bullet, but when we combine this with ag-water optimization, with water banking, with conservation easements, all of these things combined make a difference,” Ferry said.
But the innovations Ferry described require a major financial commitment from the state and legislative changes to water policy, such as his HB33 that would promote instream flows.
“It’s going to be a long-term investment,” he said. “And truly, if we want Utah to remain the best place in the country to live, the best place in the world to live, we’ve got to make those investments today.”