Maria Archibald: This year’s snowfall was an opportunity for the Great Salt Lake. Utah legislators are wasting it.

It’s our job to hold our leaders accountable.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Framed by dust, strong winds blow fine particulate matter obstructing the view of Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.

In early April, on the heels of a record-breaking winter, I woke up to this headline: “The Great Salt Lake seemed like it was dying. But there’s been a ‘miraculous’ shift.” Not a week later, as I sipped my coffee and scrolled through the news, another headline flashed across my screen: “Utah’s Great Salt Lake risked disappearing. Unprecedented weather is bringing it back.”

These headlines aren’t the full story. In fact, they’re misleading. A few paragraphs in, the articles acknowledge a more complex reality: This year’s snowfall can only offer the Great Salt Lake, which in 2022 dropped to its lowest recorded level, a temporary marginal reprieve. It remains in serious jeopardy, but to the casual headline scroller, the takeaway message was just as optimistic as it was wrong: “precipitation saved the Great Salt Lake.”

The truth? The state’s egregious misappropriation of water for agriculture, mineral extraction, power generation and municipal and industrial use – along with climate change – are responsible for the crisis at the Great Salt Lake. Weather did not cause the problem, nor will it solve it. Only a fundamental shift in water policy and management can do that.

It’s true that this wet winter postponed the Great Salt Lake’s collapse by a couple years, and that’s worth celebrating. But the lake requires an additional five feet to reach a healthy state, and water levels are already declining again. In fact, despite the brief respite, the lake may now be in a worse position than before.

That’s because the snowfall was an opportunity, not a solution, and state leaders are squandering it. The Utah Legislature has interpreted the reprieve as a permanent change in the trajectory of the lake’s health. In reality, humans drain 1.2 million acre feet per year more than rain and snow can replace, and the Great Salt Lake remains on track to vanish within a decade unless authorities intervene. These trends show no sign of changing, but state leaders have buried their heads in the snowpack.

Before the snowfall, it appeared that our leaders might finally take the decline of the Great Salt Lake seriously. In late 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox announced his new budget — including $50 million to conserve Great Salt Lake — from the shores of Antelope Island. State lawmakers even dubbed the 2022 legislative session “the year of water” to highlight their supposed commitment to the issue. For a moment, it seemed that the Utah Legislature had finally been forced into action after years of delay. But after the record-setting snowfall, that urgency vanished.

Not only have state leaders failed to use this reprieve to plan for a sustainable future for the lake, but they’re lashing out at their critics. At a symposium this year, Gov. Cox threatened that legislators will withdraw from the issue altogether if constituents continue to criticize their inaction. When asked about the state of the lake, leaders often avoid the question and instead emphasize the unprecedented precipitation – not to mention the flooding, mudslides and property damage it caused – while failing to attribute such extreme weather patterns to another leading cause of the lake’s decline: climate change.

Meanwhile, during the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers quietly killed a resolution setting a target minimum lake elevation of 4,198 feet above sea level and blocked a bill to dedicate $65 million annually to acquire water rights for the lake.

If the Great Salt Lake declines further, or vanishes completely, the results will be catastrophic for the region’s communities, lands and wildlife. And with $2.5 billion of commercial activity directly connected to the lake, its demise would be not only an ecological and public health tragedy, but also an economic disaster for a state that is projected to grow by more than 2 million people by 2060. By then, we could be living in the Great Salt Dust Bowl.

But there is hope. If we act now, we can save the Great Salt Lake. First, we must put an immediate stop to new water development projects including the ongoing Bear River Development and a recent proposal to subsidize an international hay exporter, which would use over 200,000 acre feet of water each. Instead, we must conserve the water we already use for commercial purposes by a third to a half in order to increase inflow to the lake by one million acre feet per year.

In order to attain this bold yet achievable goal, the Legislature must acknowledge its responsibility to protect the Great Salt Lake for the public good and commit to restoring the lake to an elevation of 4,198 feet, which scientists agree is its minimum viable level. As the 2023 legislative session showed, however, our leaders will not take serious measures to protect the lake without pressure from constituents. At a time when irresponsible media headlines and misleading government rhetoric fuel complacency, we must stay more vigilant than ever. It’s our job to hold our leaders accountable; if we do, we can keep the Great Salt Lake great.

Maria Archibald

Maria Archibald is the lands and water programs coordinator for Sierra Club Utah.