Water districts to funnel billions of gallons to the Great Salt Lake by the end of the year

Speaker Wilson’s second Great Salt Lake Summit highlights water wins and hints at future policy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Antelope Island looms over hikers at the Great Salt Lake on Saturday, June 18, 2022.

Ogden • The Great Salt Lake will get a water boost, a new public-private partnership and see expanded conservation efforts to help it reach a sustainable level.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, hosted his second Great Salt Lake Summit Thursday, highlighting all the gains made in the nine months since his first summit in January. Lawmakers have set aside millions to improve the lake’s wetlands and secure it more water. They enacted reforms that allow for water banking and water leasing to benefit the lake. Media organizations and state agencies amped up their coverage and messaging about the lake’s imperiled status. And Utahns listened and responded, saving an impressive 9 billion gallons this year, Wilson said at the summit.

“I hoped that [the] first summit would lead to meaningful policy change, and it would also increase our awareness about the Great Salt Lake,” Wilson said. “Well, my expectations were blown out of the water.”

Still, the Great Salt Lake sunk to another record low in the summer and has continued to shrink in the days since, indicating more must be done.

“Utahns must treat water not as this overabundant, cheap resource that we thought of in the past,” Wilson said, “but as a commodity that requires careful and very meticulous management.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, holds media availability following the morning session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022, during the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session.

Wilson cited a recent Deseret News and Hinckley Institute of Politics poll as a source of hope. The survey found that 80% of Utahns are either very concerned or somewhat concerned about the Great Salt Lake, indicating more attention is being paid to the lake than ever before.

“I can’t think of any other issue that we face as a state right now,” the speaker said, “where individuals from every point on the political spectrum are united. But they are united about concerns related to the Great Salt Lake.

He called the lake — the largest waterbody in the nation with no outlet to an ocean — the most important cause he will likely work on in his public service career.

“I remain hopeful and optimistic,” Wilson said in a video produced for the summit, “that together we can ensure that Greater Salt Lake is around for generations to come.”

The state will continue moving forward with water-saving policies like the agricultural water optimization program, which awarded more than $60 million for irrigation efficiency projects in just the last year. Water districts have amped up the installation of meters across Utah’s vast system of secondary outdoor watering systems thanks to a $250 million appropriation. And cities are offering incentives for residents to rip out their turf grass in favor of less water-intensive landscapes.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Tootie Neumann and her daughter-in-law Kathy Neumann look for waterwise plants to flip the strip at Tootie's house at the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy Garden Park, Thursday, July 14, 2022.

And as the Great Salt Lake teeters on the brink of salinity levels that could cause die-offs of its brine flies and brine shrimp, along with impacts to the millions of migrating birds and the multimillion-dollar harvesting industry that rely on them, the Jordan Valley and Weber Basin water conservancy districts announced they will voluntarily release 30,000 acre-feet to the lake by the end of the year. That more than matches the 9 billion gallons Utahns conserved over the past season.

But the Great Salt Lake remains about 500,000 acre-feet short of the water it needs each year to reach a stable and sustainable level, according to Joel Ferry, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources.

That’s why state leaders are semi-seriously exploring the idea of a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, which Ferry estimated would need a pipe that is around 13 feet wide spanning three states, at a cost of $60-$100 billion, Ferry said.

“Today, no one is out there. We’re not setting aside money to start the pipe[line],” Ferry said.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Joel Ferry speaks during the first Great Salt Lake Summit at the Davis Conference Center in Layton, Wednesday, January 5, 2022.

He jokingly called the project more of a “pipe dream.”

“But ultimately,” Ferry said, “what we have to do is look at what alternatives exist, because ... that’s how important and how dire the situation is.”

Wilson closed out the summit by hinting at future legislation that will create “Utah Water Ways,” a public-private partnership to help conserve the state’s water resources. The organization would be similar to UCAIR, a partnership that helps businesses and communities make small, pooled changes to improve the airshed, except Utah Water Ways would improve the state’s watersheds.

“It’s going to be everyone doing their part,” Wilson said in an interview with reporters after the summit, “and collectively we’ll be able to address the lake. And we’re already starting to see very early signs of our efforts.

Correction, 7:20 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14: This story has been updated to correct the cost estimate for a pipeline.

This article is published through The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.