Gov. Cox has closed the Great Salt Lake basin to new water rights

The lake will likely reach its lowest point in recorded history in the coming days.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake Marina near Saltair is rendered inoperable for all boats as ongoing drought conditions continue to drop lake levels on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.

With the Great Salt Lake in peril and shrinking by the day, Gov. Spencer Cox has issued a proclamation closing the lake’s watershed to any new water rights appropriations.

The lake hit a record-low elevation for a second consecutive year in July and has largely continued to drop in the weeks since, even with recent storms. Its current elevation is 4,188.6 feet above sea level, according to a U.S. Geological Survey gauge on the railroad causeway bisecting the lake. The lake’s vast amount of exposed lakebed has generated concern about the danger toxic dust poses to the millions of people living along the Wasatch Front. And its rising salinity levels threaten the food chain for millions of migrating birds.

State-sponsored research found the lake would be 11 feet higher if not for water rights and diversions on the lake’s tributary streams, which include the Bear, Weber, Jordan and Provo rivers.

“Extreme drought, climate change and increased demand continue to threaten the Great Salt Lake,” Cox said in a news release announcing his proclamation. “We are united in our efforts to protect this critical resource and are taking action to ensure existing flows continue to benefit the lake. When conditions improve, the suspension can be lifted.”

The move appears to have the support of legislators, with House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President J. Stuart Adams issuing statements of support.

“Today’s announcement by Gov. Cox is a move in the right direction,” Wilson said in the news release. “As state leaders, we are doing everything we can to ensure Utah has enough water to meet our current needs and continue to support a growing and thriving population.”

Wilson has made saving the Great Salt Lake one of his key platforms. He hosted two summits addressing the lake’s plight, took lawmakers on a helicopter tour to observe its transformation last winter and earned broad support for a $40 million bill meant to bolster its inflows.

Cox’s proclamation placing new water rights on pause has some caveats. Non-consumptive uses that return water back to the system, like hydropower generation, can move forward. Applications that have plans to offset the water depleted also have exceptions, as do applications for “small amounts” of water. Utah state code defines “small amounts” as the water needed for a single residence, to irrigate a quarter-acre and to support 10 cows.

It does not to apply to Tooele County or the west desert, according to the news release.

The measure also does not impact existing water rights.

The State Engineer will prepare a report within the next year recommending whether the suspension should continue.

With irrigation season over and lower temperatures slowing evaporation, the Great Salt Lake’s elevation is expected to bottom out soon. It will likely begin rising again with spring runoff, though by how much will largely depend on how much snow falls in the basin this winter.

The Jordan Valley and Weber Basin water conservancy districts recently announced plans to funnel 30,000 acre-feet to help the beleaguered lake by the end of the year. But scientists say it needs closer to 2 million acre-feet each year to reach a sustainable level.

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.