Gov. Cox’s office walks back support of plan to siphon water from Great Salt Lake

The governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office urged approval of the project last spring, but has changed its position.

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

US Magnesium’s application to extend its canals and to reach the Great Salt Lake’s receding water has received a deluge of opposition from Utahns across the state.

And so far, it appears one of the few state entities voicing support for the project — Gov. Spencer Cox’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, or PLPCO — has walked back its position.

The mineral harvesting company applied for a permit with the Army Corps of Engineers in late August, detailing their plans to dredge two canals so the facility on the Great Salt Lake can remain operational if the lake drops to 4,185 feet above sea level. The lake hit a historical record low this year, dipping down around 4,188 feet. Salinity levels have spiked, putting the brine shrimping industry at risk. The lake’s microbialites have surfaced and its brine flies have all but disappeared, signaling an imploding ecosystem.

US Magnesium’s canal extension project would allow it to pump 100,000 gallons per minute from the lake, which has many Utahns alarmed. Citizens shared more than 800 comments with the Division of Water Quality, which is also reviewing the permit application. The feedback outlines potentially disastrous consequences for millions of migrating birds if the lake loses more water, along with the public health consequences of the drying lakebed that is currently exposed.

“We’ve been polluting, extracting, and exploiting Great Salt Lake for over a century,” wrote one Salt Lake City resident. “She has been protecting us from ourselves, and now as she sits at the brink of ecosystem collapse, she is telling us no more.”

But the dredging plan had at least one supporter. In its application to the Army Corps, US Magnesium attached a letter of from PLPCO Executive Director Redge Johnson urging federal regulators to approve the permit.

“The open waters of the Lake’s Gilbert Bay on which the Company’s facilities are located are receding,” Johnson wrote, “leaving the Company hampered in its efforts to connect to the Lake and the resources it requires.”

As part of the governor’s office, PLPCO coordinates, advocates and litigates for Utah’s priorities on public lands.

The agency issued its letter of support in April, but the lake faced dire straits even then, which Johnson alluded to. He noted a previous record low the lake sunk to last year. But he called US Magnesium’s limited access to brine both an “imminent threat” to the company, to Utah and to the nation.

“The company produces all of the primary magnesium metal in the U.S.,” Johnson said, “and provides 14% of the world supply.”

Johnson noted that magnesium is on the U.S. Geological Survey’s critical mineral list. He also pointed to lithium, another product US Magnesium began producing in recent years, as another vital resource.

“Lithium ... is used in the production of rechargeable batteries,” Johnson wrote, “critical to existing and evolving sustainable technology.”

US Magnesium produces its lithium from existing waste piles, however, not from fresh brine drawn from the Great Salt Lake.

But as news spread about the permit application, PLPCO appears to have backpedaled. On Sept. 9, just two days after The Salt Lake Tribune published a story detailing US Magnesium’s canal extension plans, Johnson issued another letter to the Army Corps that struck a more neutral tone.

“The State has evaluated the proposal,” Johnson wrote, “and encourages innovations in processing that would reduce overall depletions” of the lake’s water.

He included feedback from several state agencies that manage the lake about the dire environmental and economic consequences of dwindling water and dredged lakebed.

“The State encourages the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to collaborate,” Johnson wrote, “... as we work to find practical solutions for the future of the lake while also supporting the economic viability of private industries that provide critical minerals for our nation.”

Cox’s newly unveiled budget calls for millions to fund water conservation measures, including $100 million to specifically lease water rights for the Great Salt Lake. He also recently closed most of the Great Salt Lake’s watershed to new water rights.

When asked about his office’s initial position on US Magnesium’s canal project, a spokesperson for the governor referred The Tribune to PLPCO for comment.

“This new letter is where the state government is at,” said Jake Garfield, the office’s deputy director.

He emphasized the importance of working with the lake’s many stakeholders — including extractive industries, brine shrimpers, agriculture and cities — to bring it to a level where it is sustainable for everyone.

“At this point, there’s not really a winning idea on the table,” Garfield said. “But we would like the Army Corps to work with everyone in finding what those winning ideas might be.”

Tom Tripp, director of technical services for US Magnesium, declined to comment on the public comments opposing the dredging plan. But he noted that the company is only diverting about half of the water it is entitled to from the lake.

“Extraction is not the enemy here,” Tripp said. “We’re a small player in the use.”

A 2016 white paper authored by scientists at Utah State University, Salt Lake Community College and the Utah Department of Natural Resources found salt pond mineral extraction diverts 13% of the water that would otherwise flow to the Great Salt Lake. Municipal and industrial use, by comparison, accounts for 11% of diversion and agriculture uses 63%. The lake’s mineral extraction industry also contributes $1.3 billion to the state economy each year according to research commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.

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.