Eric C. Ewert: Only one scenario could save the Once Great Salt Lake

Only the end of alfalfa farming in Utah will make a real difference in saving the lake

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pivot irrigation on an alfalfa field in Mt. Carmel on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

Interest in the fate of Utah’s Once Great Salt Lake has never been higher. With media, years of newspaper commentary, advocacy groups, abundant research and lots of new legislative money, even the endless development climate deniers have finally realized that northern Utah’s environmental and economic future rests largely on this long-neglected and abused broad pool of salty water.

The problem, though, is that everything we’ve committed to so far (agricultural optimization, xeriscaping, secondary water metering, water-saving infrastructure, water banking, etc.) is no more than an expensive band-aid on a ruptured aorta. Great Salt Lake needs emergency surgery right now, and without a profound paradigm shift, aridification will doom us to a bleakly dry, bird-less and toxic dust-burdened future.

Luckily, there is one paradigm-shifting scenario that quickly and easily refills the lake and replenishes all the ecological and economic benefits it bestows upon us: Stop growing alfalfa. We could have all the water many times our current population could ever need by simply transitioning away from a non-native thirsty crop that never belonged in the desert in the first place.

Before the angry mob of farmers, ranchers, water district supervisors, legislators and their teams of attorneys call for my head, let me state that what follows is based on widely available data. Don’t take my word for it; go do your own research. And let me say right up front that farmers ought to be fairly compensated for their lost water.

Armed with a wealth of carefully analyzed data, University of Utah economist Gabriel A. Lozada, has brilliantly summarized the imprudence of focusing our conservation efforts on urban water users instead of agriculture’s profligate consumption. Everyone should read his sensible report. Lozada’s report, and indeed most Utah data, is collected at the state level. But because the Salt Lake watershed dominates Utah agriculture, and the fact that these figures don’t include Idaho’s sizable use of Bear River water, the statistics are pretty accurate.

The Utah Division of Water Resources and other sources have documented that 82% of Utah water use by volume is devoted to agriculture. A Utah State University report on water consumption by crop type (alfalfa slurps 2.12-acre feet of water/acre compared to, say, wheat, at 1.22-acre feet/acre) combined with 2020 data on number of acres planted in each crop type (730,000 acres for alfalfa and hay) yields the staggering number of nearly 1.5 million-acre feet of water used to grow alfalfa or hay per year.

That equals 68.1% of the state’s total water use. To grow hay. To feed cows.

To fill and cover the exposed toxic dust flats that now ring Great Salt Lake would require lake elevation to rise 10 feet from its current record low. That equates to about 7.5 million acre-feet of water. If we stopped irrigating hay and alfalfa, the simple math suggests that we could refill the lake in about five years. (Longer, of course, with evaporation.) But still, this is a solution in a few years rather than decades of low-flow toilets, cactus gardens, new water meters and short showers. (All of which won’t work anyway, at least not fast enough.)

All true, but wouldn’t the state’s economy take a big hit if we stopped growing hay? No. Simple calculations from the 2021 Economic Report to the Governor document that hay and alfalfa generate .2% of the state’s total GDP. In fact, all combined, the entire agricultural sector contributed .44% to the state’s annual GDP. No fiscal conservative would ever support using 68% of our water to generate one fifth of 1% of our state’s economy. But we do.

What makes this even more obscene is that by value, according to the Census of Trade, 29% of Utah hay was sold to foreign countries in 2020, and of that, more than two-thirds went to China. Shipping scarce water to China in the form of hay for so little revenue is insane. It is apparently profitable, though, because water is so cheap in Utah (that and nearly $1 billion in subsidies paid to Utah farmers from 1995-2020).

Yeah, but wouldn’t food get really expensive if we quit growing hay in Utah? No.

Utah contains less than 1.4% of the nation’s hay growing acreage and 29% of that production gets exported anyway. So, dairy and ranch operations might have to import hay from across state lines, but cessation of hay production would be nearly negligible except for the hay farmers, which brings me to my last point.

Protected by senior water rights, generous subsidies, loyal politicians and the cultural iconography of a family farm, hay growers aren’t going to just give up their businesses. Instead of another posturing tax cut like last year and proposed for this year (likely to save Utah families a whopping $8/month), let’s spend that money and more to transition hay and alfalfa farmers to some other livelihood. This would be millions cheaper than the costs and lost revenues of the environmental apocalypse a dead Great Salt Lake will bring.

If we really want to get serious about saving the lake and our future, this is where we should direct our energy, attention, and money. All the rest is just a dry well of distraction.

Eric Ewert

Eric C. Ewert is professor and chair of the Department of Geography, Environment & Sustainability at Weber State University.