Two water districts will funnel billions of gallons to the parched Great Salt Lake by year’s end. But will it be enough to reverse or even slow the lake’s collapse?
Weber Basin and Jordan Valley water conservancy districts managed to scrape together a combined 30,000 acre-feet of extra water they could send to the lake rather than storing it in reservoirs or piping it to customers. The news made a big splash at Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson’s latest Great Salt Lake Summit, held in October. The districts’ “end-of-the-year” deadline is fast approaching, however, and it appears one of them has yet to channel any of the promised water.
Jordan Valley intends to send 12,000 acre-feet, or about 4 billion gallons, from water rights it has for shallow wells near the lower Jordan River, meant “for future municipal supplies,” according to a district spokesperson.
The district will file a change application with the Utah Division of Water Rights to instead send that water to the Great Salt Lake for up to five years as part of the $40 million trust for the lake lawmakers established earlier this year.
Water managers have yet to file that change application, however, although they intend to in the next month or two, the spokesperson said.
Weber Basin’s share of the promised water is 17,000 acre-feet, or about 5.5 billion gallons, according to the district’s General Manager and CEO Scott Paxman. It began delivering that water to the lake in late October.
“This was made possible,” Paxman said in an email last month, “due to some maintenance we are doing on the Willard Canal.”
That means the water can’t flow to Willard Reservoir, so managers are sending it to the lake until the end of December instead. Recent storms have boosted flows, however, and Paxman expects the district will deliver a lot more than initially thought — possibly 25,000 acre-feet or more.
Will the donated water save the Great Salt Lake?
Still, state scientists who manage the lake concede the lake needs much more water than these two districts have promised.
“The amount of water they’re sending,” said Ben Stireman, a program manager with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, “it wouldn’t make a measurable difference in the level of the lake, given how large it is.”
About 2 million acre-feet evaporate off the Great Salt Lake each year, Stireman said, depending on its surface area. That means it needs about the same amount flowing into it — either through tributary streams, groundwater inputs or precipitation — to maintain a sustainable elevation. This year, Stireman said, the lake saw inflows of about 775,000 acre-feet from its tributary rivers, which include the Bear, Weber and Jordan. Years of deficits lead to a shrinking lake.
But adding the district’s 30,000 acre-feet with other water donations, like the 21,000 acre-feet environmental groups secured for the lake last year in partnership with Rio Tinto Kennecott, and the cumulative effect can start to move the dial.
“When you start combining those kinds of transactions together,” Stireman said, “and they start multiplying, that’s when you start to see a measurable effect.”
Stireman’s division, along with the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, are working out a compact for the Great Salt Lake trust, which will free up funding to purchase or lease more water rights for the lake.
“We’re very close in getting an agreement finished,” Stireman said, adding the division will be “announcing something soon.”