‘I’m not sure the lake will always be there’ — Why lawmakers want $40M to help save the Great Salt Lake

New trust, managed by a nongovernmental nonprofit, would secure more water and improve wildlife habitat — by possibly tapping federal money.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake as seen near the Spiral Jetty, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. Persistent drought has reduced lake levels to historic lows as the shoreline continues to recede.

Lawmakers are on track to funnel $40 million to Utah’s dying Great Salt Lake before it’s too late.

This week, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, unveiled his “Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement” legislation, which would create a trust charged with finding more water for the lake and its surrounding wetlands. The funds would also help improve the quality of water reaching the lake and restore upstream habitat.

Wilson presented HB410 on Friday to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee, capping a week when lawmakers got a bird’s-eye view of just how desiccated the lake has become.

“The lake’s always been there, and, quite frankly, I thought it always would be,” Wilson told lawmakers at the hearing. “But I’m not sure that’s the case. I’m not sure the lake will always be there unless we have some important and meaningful interventions.”

Research by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Utah State University and others shows the Great Salt Lake would be around 11 feet higher if not for human water consumption.

The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, where water leaves only through evaporation, making it saltier and more hostile to wildlife the more it shrinks. Because it spreads across the Salt Lake Valley like water in a shallow dinner plate, a foot of lost elevation equals 150 square miles of exposed lakebed, as Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, pointed out.

“So we’ve exposed 1,650 square miles of lakebed” with the elevation dropping by 11 feet, the lawmaker said. “You could see a lot of it as we flew over that lake” during a recent aerial tour.

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

Exposed lakebeds can lead to toxic air quality from blowing dust — as the $2 billion environmental disaster at California’s Owens Lake shows.

Multimillion-dollar mineral extraction, brine shrimp harvesting and lake tourism industries also face collapse if the Great Salt Lake continues to dwindle.

Wilson said he first became aware of the dire situation facing the Great Salt Lake — and the dense urban populations living right next to it — after listening to a “RadioWest” podcast last summer, shortly after the lake hit a record low.

“I really got alarmed,” said Wilson, who organized a Great Salt Lake summit in January. “... I got to the capital later that day, sat down with staff and said ‘we need to dig deeply into this and start working on this significantly.’”

The $40 million pegged for the lake’s enhancement could come from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, the speaker added. The Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands would work to administer the money as a grant within 60 days after the bill becomes law.

The group managing the grant money and resulting trust created by HB410 would have to be a nonprofit or an alliance between at least two conservation organizations. Either way, the grantee would need to have a Utah base, experience in fundraising for conservation projects, and strong familiarity with the lake.

While Wilson did not indicate any preference for a specific group, the National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy have spent decades managing and restoring the lake’s wetlands, and seem likely candidates. Both groups spoke in support of HB410 and issued statements shortly after the measure became public.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) American white pelicans gather at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a 74,000-acre nature reserve along the northern Great Salt Lake in June 2021.

“This substantial amount of funding, coupled with other bills before the Utah Legislature, signals a major commitment to the state’s future health — from the ecosystem to the economy,” Marcelle Shoop, Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program director, wrote in a statement.

Dave Livermore, Utah director for The Nature Conservancy, called the Great Salt Lake a state treasure. He also pointed out the lake’s hemispherical significance as a stopover and nesting site for around 10 million birds migrating between North America and South America each year.

“Historically low levels of the lake pose real threats to its ecological and economic resources as well as to human health along the Wasatch Front,” Livermore said. “Creative and bold innovations are needed to address this situation.”

Representatives from FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, Utah Waterfowl Association and the Jordan River Commission also spoke in support of the measure, which passed out of the committee with a unanimous favorable recommendation.

“For too long, the lake has been a literal end of the line when it comes to water rights,” said Lynn de Freitas with FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. “... As much as I love the lake, it’s been difficult over the last few years to watch its decline. [But] I believe it’s not too late to save the lake. If we work together, we can turn things around.”