Sen. Mike Lee proposes more dams as a solution for the shriveling Great Salt Lake

A discussion meant to focus on how the federal government can help the imperiled lake devolved into political posturing.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bear River drains into dry impounded wetlands of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and does not flow into the Great Salt Lake, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. Only 3 out of the 11 wetland ponds contain water.

Ogden • In a forum Thursday about what the federal government can do to save the shrinking Great Salt Lake, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee called for laxer regulations so states can more quickly build “effective water storage infrastructure projects.”

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, moderated the discussion as part of his second Great Salt Lake Summit. The panel included Lee, U.S. Rep. Blake Moore and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, who was apparently there at the invitation of Lee.

Wilson opened with a question about a bill meant to benefit all saline lakes in the Great Basin, called the “Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act.” The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Moore, passed the House earlier this year. But a similar bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, has yet to see a vote on the Senate floor.

“What [can we] do to get some of this finished,” Wilson asked the panel, “and across the finish line?”

In his response, Lee instead pivoted to a piece of legislation he’s been trying to get movement on since 2020. Called the UNSHACKLE Act, Lee’s proposal would gut the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which was enacted by Congress in 1970.

“When you look back at the massive large [water] storage infrastructure projects that were completed in the last century,” Lee said, “particularly the early half of the last century, a lot of those went from design concept, to steel and concrete in the ground, to completion in a year or two.”

These days, Lee lamented, building big dam projects like those seen on the Weber and Provo rivers would take at least a decade if Utah was “lucky.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

“Even though they may seem attenuated from the Great Salt Lake at first,” Lee said, “it’s exactly the sort of thing we need. The more water storage infrastructure that we can get built and into the ground and permitted quickly, the better equipped we’re going to be to make sure that this terminus lake continues to get water, because otherwise our rising population, coupled with decreased precipitation, is going to create more of the same vicious cycle, and we can’t have that.

Human water consumption and water developments account for the vast majority of the Great Salt Lake’s depletions, as other speakers at the summit pointed out — even more than climate change, rising temperatures or drought.

Moore turned the conversation back to his saline lakes bill, an effort that saw success, at least in the House, after the congressman worked with colleagues from across the aisle.

“The Audubon Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, have been extremely helpful in getting it to this point, Moore said, also praising local leaders like Gov. Spencer Cox. “Everybody has come together, and that’s the thing I’m encouraged [by], the broad support that it has.”

Moore added that he’s watching how things will progress with Romney’s counterpart bill in the Senate. If it becomes law, the saline lakes act would channel $25 million to collect data and research on saline lake watersheds and better equip states to manage them.

“There’s a significant amount of stakeholder interest,” Moore said, “from across the entire United [States] and Western United States.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Blake Moore at the U.S.. House 1st District Republican primary debate in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 2, 2022.

But Barrasso, the senator from Wyoming, quickly derailed the conversation into political posturing.

“We’re much better off if we have not [U.S. House] Speaker Pelosi and not [Senate] Chairman Schumer,” the Republican said of Congress’s current Democratic leadership, “but if you [instead] have Barrasso as chair of the energy committee and you have a speaker of the House who is a Republican, who focuses [on] and understands the Rocky Mountain West, because the folks running the show right now don’t and they don’t care.

The senator’s rant was met by scattered applause and a few quiet boos from the audience, which included researchers, environmental interest groups, state legislators and policymakers, as well as local leaders like Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who is a Democrat.

“The government was designed as a check and balance,” Barrasso continued. “Right now, we don’t have that. We have one party in charge of the House and the Senate, as well as the White House. ... I want to make Joe Biden a half-term president.”

Barrasso went on to praise Lee, who faces a close reelection challenge from independent Evan McMullin, as a “solid conservative who votes right.”

Barrasso’s comments came moments after introducing himself and reminiscing about Orrin Hatch, noting Utah’s former senator encouraged him to “engage, not enrage,” “inform, not inflame” and “persuade, not provoke.”

Asked about Lee’s comments regarding more storage projects in the Great Salt Lake watershed, Wilson said he recognized a need for improved water infrastructure.

“There’s a number of things that can be done related to storage that actually do help get more water to the lake,” the speaker said in an interview after the summit ended. “... You’ve got all these distribution systems, canals, pipes that are failing or inefficient.”

Reservoirs can play a role in funneling water to the Great Salt Lake — at the summit, Wilson announced Weber Basin and Jordan Valley water conservancy districts are releasing a collective 30,000 acre-feet from their dams to benefit the Great Salt Lake by the end of the year. The need for more water couldn’t be more urgent. Rising salinities are threatening the lake’s brine shrimp, along with the multi-million dollar aquaculture industry and millions of migrating birds that depend on them.

The speaker didn’t discount the need for more water storage projects in the future, especially as the Wasatch Front’s population continues to grow at a clip.

“But we’ve got to get the sequencing right,” Wilson said, “and making sure the Great Salt Lake is on the right trajectory is critical.”