Should companies stop siphoning away the Great Salt Lake until it refills?

Keeping water in the beleaguered lake matters more than any single industry, commenters from Ogden to Saratoga Springs argued.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The US Magnesium dike north of Stansbury Island on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

As US Magnesium presses forward with securing permits to extend its intake canals, dozens showed up at a public meeting Wednesday to rally in defense of the Great Salt Lake.

The lake’s advocates included sailors and skiers, students and small business owners. Some traced their Utah roots back to the Mormon pioneers, while others were recent transplants from California and the Midwest. Some represented environmental groups like FRIENDS of the Great Salt Lake, the Audubon Society and HEAL Utah. Others simply represented themselves and their families. They all shared a common message — the Great Salt Lake is in trouble, and allowing an industry to siphon away more of its water is a terrible idea.

“The best available science we have shows that the impacts on the lake from this project would be devastating, long-lasting and possibly irreversible,” said Rose Smith, board president of FRIEND of Great Salt Lake, at one point moved to tears during her comments.

The meeting was hosted by the Utah Division of Water Quality, which must sign off on US Magnesium’s project and ensure it doesn’t violate the federal Clean Water Act.

The lake has hit record lows two years in a row. It has receded so far that minerals companies are having a hard time accessing the brine they need to evaporate into valuable materials like magnesium, road salts and fertilizer.

US Magnesium wants to dredge and extend a 1.1-mile canal, called P-N, another 0.7 miles and a second 2.6-mile canal, called P-0, another 3 miles. It would mean digging up about 127 acres of lakebed. Once complete, the extended canals would allow US Magnesium to guzzle 100,000 gallons a minute from the Great Salt Lake.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The project would mean the company could continue to access the lake’s water if it sinks to a catastrophic 4,185 feet. A U.S. Geological Survey gauge on the south side of the lake’s rail causeway shows its elevation at 4,188.8 feet. The lake is so low that a gauge at the marina near Saltair typically used to measure the lake’s elevation is not working.

The Division of Water Quality has already written up a draft permit for US Magnesium’s canal project, which alarmed many at the meeting.

“I love the lake and the water in it,” Kelly Hannah told state regulators at the meeting. “... If this permit is approved, I would call that gross negligence on the part of the state for every citizen that lives along the Wasatch Range.”

Around two-dozen people attended the meeting in person, while virtual participation peaked at more than 80 attendees. Commenters shared their fears about toxic dust storms kicking up at the Great Salt Lake, wondering if they might make all of northern Utah unlivable. Others lamented the collapse of microbialites across the lake, which serve as the foundation of a food web for brine shrimp, brine flies and millions of migrating birds.

“We’ve got to stop business as usual,” said Helene Cuomo. “Our health is at stake, our planet is at stake, wildlife is at stake.”

Last year, US Magnesium diverted 41,457.54 acre-feet from the lake, partly because it’s having trouble reaching the water. But the company also uses less brine when lake levels are low because the minerals are naturally more concentrated. It has water rights to take nearly 145,000 acre-feet.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The US Magnesium dike north of Stansbury Island on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Some argued that with the lake nearing collapse, every drop of water industries pull out should be replaced with water rights or shares. They expressed frustration over all the strides lawmakers have made in reforming Utah’s archaic water law, and all the efforts state residents have made to tear out their grass and cut back on water use, only for those gains to be bled away by a company that only employs a few hundred people.

“You don’t know what losing the lake entails,” Al Rockatansky wrote in the Zoom meeting’s chat. “What I thought would happen in 40, 50 years is happening right in front of me, it’s terrifying.”

Others called on the division to protect the wildlife and recreational values the lake provides, not just its economic output.

“We are trading our namesake,” said Michael Shiplet, a member of Great Salt Lake Rowing. “We are trading our ... heritage for the profit of a company.”

In a previous interview, a US Magnesium representative said the company is aware of the lake’s dire situation and is only seeking the minimum amount of water it needs to stay in business. It is currently the only domestic source of magnesium in the United States. The extractor is also seeing a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its canal extension project.

The Utah Division of Water Quality will continue to accept comments through Oct. 27. They can be submitted to wqcomments@utah.gov.

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.