‘Pray for snow’ — Utah lawmakers tour the vanishing Great Salt Lake from the sky

“It’s worse than I thought,” says one as legislators vow to take action.

About 10 million birds visit the Great Salt Lake every year, and this week, about 90 state lawmakers are going to get a bird’s-eye view of how rapidly that critical habitat is shrinking.

The Utah Army National Guard is hosting the tours in Black Hawk helicopters, FOX 13 reports, as part of a training exercise. The first flight departed Tuesday morning, and a second is scheduled for Wednesday.

The Great Salt Lake grabbed headlines and lawmakers’ attention last summer, when it plunged to a record low. After seeing the aftermath firsthand, Utah’s elected leaders are vowing to take action.

“It’s worse than I thought,” said Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, noting that he has lived near the lake’s shores his entire life, in Weber and Davis counties.

(Scott G Winterton | Pool) Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, and Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, and other Utah lawmakers take an aerial tour of the Great Salt Lake in Black Hawk helicopters from the Utah National Guard on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

“It was really disheartening to see,” the lawmaker said. “It made me sad — and anxious, too, because we’ve got to have all hands on deck on this.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the lake is a “high priority” this year. He is scheduled to join the Wednesday flyover.

”The last trip out to Antelope Island that I made, looking back … it didn’t look like an island much anymore,” he told reporters Tuesday. “And I think that’s a real concern.”

(Scott G Winterton | Pool) A Black Hawk helicopter flies over the Great Salt Lake as Utah lawmakers take an aerial tour of the Great Salt Lake with the Utah National Guard on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Adams added that lawmakers have not yet decided how much money they will budget for water conservation this year but acknowledged that any amount will fall short of the need.

For now, he asked Utahns to “pray for snow.”

”That’s the solution, so let’s keep hoping for more,” he said. “We’re hoping our flight … to the Great Salt Lake gets canceled tomorrow and it’s snowing hard.”

While the West’s decades-long drought has contributed to the lake’s decline, much of the problem can be traced back to Utahns’ own water consumption habits.

In 2016, Utah State University, the Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake Community College and others found the lake would be a whopping 11 feet higher if not for agricultural, industrial and municipal use of water from its tributaries like the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers.

Those findings don’t include the impacts of human-caused climate change, which is causing the current megadrought across the West to be longer and more severe.

(Scott G Winterton | Pool) A Black Hawk helicopter flies over the Great Salt Lake as Utah lawmakers take an aerial tour of the Great Salt Lake with the Utah National Guard on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

“It was really significant to be able to see firsthand from a low-level flight how much of the expanse of the lake that we’re accustomed to seeing underwater is no longer underwater,” said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, who helped organize the trip.

While the Great Salt Lake comprises most of Utah’s wetlands and provides vital habitat to wildlife, its collapse would be devastating to the people living along the Wasatch Front as well. Desiccated salty lakes around the world, from Owens Lake in California to the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, have caused public health and economic disasters.

Witnessing the Great Salt Lake on a similar path was, Owens said, “very concerning.”

(Scott G. Winterton | Pool) One of three Utah National Guard Black Hawks flies past Antelope Island while taking lawmakers on an aerial tour of the Great Salt Lake on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

“You just get a real tangible sense of how much impact the drought has had,” he said. “Of course, human policies have figured into that. And we can reverse and change most human decisions.”

Utah grappled with a crippling drought last summer, and snowfall this winter has been lackluster so far, offering little hope that nature will come to the state’s rescue. With that in mind, lawmakers have drafted dozens of bills relating to water so far.

Several lawmakers said they have their eye on HB242 as a potential win for the lake.

The proposed legislation would require meters on all secondary connections, helping consumers understand how much water they are using on their lawns and gardens.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah National Guard helicopters depart from the south lawn of the Capitol after taking lawmakers on a tour of the Great Salt Lake, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

After having a secondary meter installed at their households, northern Utah residents typically cut back outdoor watering by around 25%, according to research conducted by Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. Even for those who opt not to change their habits, secondary meters would allow water providers to someday charge more for that consumption and identify customers who overwater.

And at least some of those water savings could trickle downstream to the Great Salt Lake.

“There’s no easy, quick solution to it, right?” said Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper. “There’s lots of little steps that we need to take, and all of those combined efforts hopefully will make a difference.”

While cruising above the lake Tuesday, Stenquist said he was in awe of its beauty and its fragility.

“I hope everyone understands that the Legislature — and the governor, I’m sure — is concerned about this,” the lawmaker said. “It’s a very high priority for us this year in the legislative session, and we really want to take some meaningful steps to make a difference.”

— Tribune reporters Daedan Olander and Bethany Rodgers contributed to this story. The Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.

Correction Feb. 18, 12:30 p.m.: This story and photo captions have been updated to clarify the group operating the air tours.