Antelope Island • Gov. Spencer Cox stood on a hill near what used to be the shore of the Great Salt Lake in the brisk morning air Tuesday and looked out across Antelope Island.
Instead of water, a barren salt flat stretched behind the governor and framed the ghost of a once great lake. Ducks puddled together in remaining pools of salty water, a dry marina was absent of any boat traffic.
“The Great Salt Lake is one of the most important ecosystems in our state,” Cox said after thanking a group of reporters for joining him on the field trip to the state park.
The short expedition to Antelope Island allowed the governor and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson to formally roll out their $25 billion state government budget proposal. The funding priorities include $400 million in proposed state spending for water restoration and recovery projects, with $45 million specifically set aside for Great Salt Lake support and research.
Utah’s thirst for a finite resource and climate change-induced drought has caused Salt Lake City’s namesake to contract to its lowest depths in recorded history. The terminal basin is nearly 10 feet below its historical average.
The governor said that 10 million migratory birds, and thousands of boaters and hunters, flock to the lake every year. The lake generates around $1.3 billion annually to the state’s economy through tourism, mineral harvesting and the brine shrimp industry.
“The Great Salt Lake is an indispensable natural resource and we must protect this lake and the wetlands that surround it,” Cox said. Saving the lake, he added, would be a threefold effort: one part management, one part science and one part action. It was critical to remove invasive species and improve the tributaries that flow to the basin, he added.
Cox told reporters that the proposed $45 million was just the beginning of the funding it would take to save the lake but was the price tag for getting started this next fiscal year.
The administration has also met with Utah Rep. Blake Moore, who, along with Sen. Mitt Romney, has sponsored federal legislation “to assess, monitor and benefit the hydrology” of terminal water systems in the West. That proposal would authorize $25 million over five years.
State lawmaker Rep. Tim Hawkes also joined the governor’s expedition. The Centerville Republican said it wasn’t too late to save the Great Salt Lake, and even with the water so low, the lake was still meeting most of its beneficial uses, like producing lake effect snow and driving tourism.
“But if it gets much worse,” Hawkes said, “then we look like we’ll start to hit some of those critical thresholds where it’s much, much harder and much, much more expensive to try to mitigate against some of those harms.”
He told reporters that Utahns need to find a way to use less water, even as the state continues its rapid growth.
“That’s an enormous challenge, but the state’s actually proven itself very good at meeting difficult challenges,” said Hawks.