Opinion: Four things to know about Great Salt Lake and Utah’s water conservation efforts

We have the remarkable opportunity to craft and share one of the greatest environmental, economic and political success stories of our generation.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake Marina, on Friday, December 29, 2023.

The Great Salt Lake Strike Team recently shared a new data and insights report, which summarizes the effects of the 2023 water year, explains the science of runoff efficiency and provides updated calculations of the water conservation needed to refill the lake. The report makes clear that no single solution will address the lake’s challenges, but if Utahns continue to engage, collaborate, align and act, we can set a new international standard for the healthy recovery of a terminal lake.

The work of the Strike Team — which brings together technical experts from Utah State University, the University of Utah and state agencies — represents the best of Utah policy analysis. It doesn’t get any better, technically speaking, than the rigorous inquiry of our research universities (which do 95% of the National Science Foundation-funded research in our state) and the talented public servants in our state agencies. The findings of the report — made available just in time for the 2024 General Legislative Session — can be found below.

We received record-breaking, much-needed precipitation in 2023.

Utah received record-breaking precipitation in the 2023 water year. Much of that water, though, refilled reservoirs and recharged groundwater. After considering runoff, berm management and evaporation, the daily elevation of the south arm of the lake rose 3.5 feet.

More surface water will reach Great Salt Lake in 2024.

Now that reservoirs are filled and aquifers have recharged, runoff in the 2024 water year will likely be more efficient and plentiful, with a greater percentage of water reaching Great Salt Lake.

Utah needs more aggressive conservation strategies.

Aggressive conservation strategies are still needed to refill the lake to a healthy range, with scenarios calculated for refilling in five years, 10 years and 30 years. At minimum, 471,000-acre feet of water will be needed to get the lake to 4,198 ft. in 30 years. This level of conservation, while possible, will require significant changes in how Utahns consume water.

Water must be shepherded directly to Great Salt Lake.

Channeling conserved water to the lake will be critical to the lake’s success. The shepherding process requires accurate measurement, robust accounting models and timely adjustments so depletions can be accurately quantified.

The founding motivation of the Strike Team is that accurate, authoritative and unbiased information leads to informed decision-making. In our more than five decades of combined policymaking experience in local, state and federal government, as well as academia, we have never witnessed such a productive technical collaboration. That is a credit to the individual Strike Team members who bring their best work to the policymaking table and our leaders who have asked us to serve the state by focusing on creating positive impact.

The eyes of the world are again on Utah as we prepare for the 2034 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. We have the remarkable opportunity, with the help of a dedicated Strike Team, to craft and share one of the greatest environmental, economic and political success stories of our generation.

Brian Steed

Brian Steed is Great Salt Lake Commissioner and executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air at Utah State University.

Natalie Gochnour

Natalie Gochnour is director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.

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