Congress passes sweeping defense bill that includes funding for the Great Salt Lake

Federal agencies get another $10 million to save drying saline lakes in the West.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ella Sorensen, Audubon Gillmor Sanctuary manager, is joined by Jack Ray, President of the Utah Waterfowl Association and chair of the Great Salt Lake Alliance as they tour the Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

A massive national defense bill has cleared both the U.S. House and Senate, and it includes legislation sponsored by several members of Utah’s Congressional delegation to benefit the Great Salt Lake.

The James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 includes all kinds of measures bolstering the military, energy security, homeland defense and protection of natural resources. Lawmakers also rolled the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act into the legislation, which earmarks $10 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin, including the Great Salt Lake in particular. The data collected will be used to help federal and local agencies develop conservation measures.

The initial draft of the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act was sponsored by Rep. Chris Stewart, Rep. Burgess Owens and Rep. John Curtis in the House and in the Senate by Sen. Mitt Romney.

“The Great Salt Lake is synonymous with the Beehive State,” Stewart said in a news release about the bill last summer. “And it’s our responsibility to ensure this staple of our community is maintained, preserved and protected for the people of Utah.”

The legislation is separate from Romney’s bipartisan Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, which the Senate approved earlier this month. That bill authorizes another $5 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to study ailing saline lakes in the West.

Both bills are meant to complement investments made by the Utah Legislature to save the Great Salt Lake, including a $40 million trust approved by lawmakers this year that Gov. Spencer Cox wants to supplement with another $25 million in the coming General Session.

“It is incumbent on us to take action now,” Romney said in the news release, “which will preserve and protect this critical body of water for many generations to come.”

The Great Salt Lake has hit a record low for two years in a row. Its ecological collapse is underway and its exposed lakebed is drying into a toxic source of polluting dust. Utah lawmakers have proposed a variety of solutions to help the lake, from secondary water metering to water right leases to a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean.

The versions of the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act introduced by Stewart and Romney also directed the Army Corps to study the feasibility of moving water across state lines to struggling saline lakes, including via pipelines, desalinization plants and canals. That language does not appear in the final defense authorization act, however.

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.