Utah DEQ denies US Magnesium’s request to extend water canals deeper into the Great Salt Lake

State regulators determined the company did not provide enough information about the potential impacts on water quality.

A controversial project meant to allow a minerals extraction company to continue pumping water from the imperiled Great Salt Lake has been rejected by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

US Magnesium needed approval from both the U.S. Army Crops of Engineers and DEQ’s Division of Water Quality to dredge and extend its intake canals a collective 3.7 miles to reach the lake’s receding water. It would have allowed the company to pump up to 100,000 gallons a minute out of the lake, which has hit record-low elevations two years in a row.

The proposal proved controversial, with DEQ receiving a deluge of public comments in opposition. Scientists warned that siphoning away more water would have disastrous consequences for the lake, which has entered a phase of ecological collapse. The resulting dredged lakebed could also stifle microbialites, which are the foundation of the lake’s food web, and mix toxic material into the water column, researchers caution.

Retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist Robert Baskin, who spent years studying the Great Salt Lake, recently expressed alarm that the company’s plans were overly vague and did not fully explore their potential environmental toll. DEQ apparently agreed.

On Thursday afternoon, the agency issued a news release on behalf of the Division of Water Quality’s director announcing they’d denied the permit application, citing insufficient detail.

“Based on the information submitted for the proposed project,” the news release said, “the Director cannot determine whether the proposed discharge complies with applicable water quality requirements.”

DEQ is responsible for determining whether projects meet federal water quality standards under the Clean Water Act. The division director apparently requested the Army Corps of Engineers grant it another year to gather additional information on US Magnesium’s proposal, but the federal agency denied the extension.

US Magnesium can apply again for a dredging permit, DEQ noted, but it will need to submit more detail about water impacts and undergo another public comment period.

“The company will look at their options and decide,” said Tom Tripp, director of technical services for US Magnesium, when asked for comment.

In addition to Section 401 determinations, state code also calls on the Division of Water Quality to manage Gilbert Bay, where US Magnesium operates, and protect the recreation, migrating birds and food chain it supports. Many opponents of the canal extension project, including Save Our Great Salt Lake, cited that law in the more than 800 comments submitted to DEQ.

Low water levels have rendered the lake’s marinas inoperable. The brine flies that sustain millions of migrating waterfowl have all but disappeared and wildlife managers say there’s a noticeable decline in the number of birds they observe visiting the lake.

“We applaud the DEQ’s decision to listen to the collective voice of the people,” said Alex Veilleux, an organizer with Save Our Great Salt Lake, “and look forward to building off the momentum of this decision to envision a truly holistic vision of solutions to the [lake’s] crisis, not just business as usual.”

FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake also spread word of US Magnesium’s plans and successfully convinced DEQ to extend its public comment period so more lake advocates could share their feedback.

Executive director Lynn de Freitas called DEQ’s decision on the 401 permit “praiseworthy.”

“It should spur us on to get to work in bringing water to the system,” de Freitas said, “so we can achieve a lake elevation ... relevant to industry needs, as well as to habitat.”

US Magnesium is the sole commercial producer of magnesium in the United States, and Great Salt Lake extraction companies funnel an average of $7 million in royalties to Utah’s coffers each year. Research has found the lake’s mineral industry contributes more than $1 billion annually in direct and indirect economic benefits to the state.

Governor Spencer Cox’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office issued a letter last spring urging the Army Corps to approve US Magnesium’s dredging request, citing potential harm to U.S. security and the state’s economy if the company is unable to access the brine it needs.

Days after news of the canal extension plans broke in September, however, the office walked back its position and a took a neutral stance. It cited concerns from various state agencies about impacts to birds, brine shrimp, salinity levels and air quality as the Great Salt Lake continues to shrink.

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.