Nate Housley: We have to put the Great Salt Lake first

(Bryan Tarnowski | The New York Times) Land that used to be submerged by the Great Salt Lake in Utah, March 17, 2022.

Recently, the New York Times’ podcast The Daily featured a story about Great Salt Lake. As most of us are now aware, the lake at the center of northern Utah’s ecosystem is shrinking.

Local media has done a great job of covering the causes and impacts of the lake’s declining water level, and now national and even international outlets are paying attention. Rightly so, considering that the lake and its drying bed are next to one of the American West’s major cities, and that it is a vital stop in the paths of millions of migratory birds.

For the rest of the country, Great Salt Lake feels like a test case for the ability of the U.S. to grapple with the imminent, local effects of global climate change.

The Daily asked probing questions as to how Salt Lake City may respond in the increasingly likely scenario that demand for water outpaces the supply. The Times reporter asks Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Public Utilities, if she has the authority to curb residential growth in the cities and towns that the department services.

While these are the sorts of hard conversations that are overdue, the podcast episode puts a disproportionate focus on residential water usage and growth. This is curious, especially since the reporter, Christopher Flavelle, notes that agriculture is responsible for roughly 70% of water consumption in the Great Salt Lake basin. Historically, converting farmland to residential neighborhoods has actually resulted in reduced water usage. Still, there was little to no discussion of agriculture’s role in conservation.

We are not suggesting that agriculture make all the necessary sacrifices while municipal and industrial water consumers continue to enjoy cheap, plentiful water. On the contrary, we are calling for a comprehensive reevaluation of the way that we manage water. Historically, water that the human population allowed to flow in its natural course to Great Salt Lake has been considered “wasted.” Water law still largely favors using all available water, however needless the purpose, rather than considering river water’s benefit for natural ecosystems.

Policymakers have been slow to update this 19th century paradigm. For example, subsidizing our municipal water rates with property taxes makes our water some of the cheapest in the country, providing little incentive for users to conserve. This is in addition to the system of secondary water, where old irrigation channels flow through residential neighborhoods unmetered and allow homeowners to flood-irrigate their property for a small fee.

Recent legislation will require meters on these connections by 2030, yet there has been no talk of raising the rates on this source of water. We support the idea of eliminating secondary water altogether. If we can first put an end to subsidized water waste, then we can have a better conversation about where our priorities lie.

The easiest, best and cheapest way to tamp down toxic dust on the dry lakebed is to let more water flow to the lake. The easiest, best and cheapest way to preserve the lake effect snow that makes the Wasatch world famous is to let more water flow to the lake. Yet politicians are doubling down on a status quo that is untenable and increasingly expensive.

Millions of our tax dollars are going into a fund to help build the Bear River Development Project, a project that would cost billions and would mean a death sentence for the vulnerable ecosystem of the lake.

Sen. Mitt Romney’s plan to study a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean is yet another attempt to shape the desert to our liking, and it is set up to fail. The status quo is absurdly represented by these two proposals: one project to dry up the lake and another to fill it back up.

We appreciate the attention to the plight of Great Salt Lake. But we reject the false choice presented both by policymakers and The Daily: that climate resiliency requires either profligate spending or personal austerity.

We do not have to work against the natural world to support future growth. In fact, making decisions in concert with nature is in our best interest, collectively and as individuals. Prioritizing the health of Great Salt Lake and recognizing its right to exist is the best way to prioritize our own well-being.

Nate Housley | Save Our Great Salt Lake

Nate Housley, Salt Lake City, is a founding member of Save Our Great Salt Lake. He is a historian with a master’s degree from University of Utah.