Tribune Editorial: No Lake City

In this undated photo provided by the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, are rare salt formations that are being are being documented for the first time along the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Rare salt formations have been documented for the first time on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, and they could yield insights about salt structures found on Mars before they disappear for good. (Utah Division of Parks and Recreation via AP)

One might think when a state’s capital city, its most populous county, its professional baseball team -- and, well, its most important news-gathering institution -- are all named for a prominent local geographic feature, no expense would be spared to keep that feature from disappearing.

But, unless people start caring and start acting, the Great Salt Lake will only be in increasing danger of, quite literally, drying up and blowing away.

This was made officially clear the other day when The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council spoke up with 137 pages of warnings and suggestions about how to preserve a lake which gives the area not only its name but billions of dollars’ worth of jobs and other economic activity.

Water is like land. They aren’t making any more of it. With ongoing climate change affecting the whole world, the chances of there being a lot less water to flow into the lake are great. Which makes it even more important that the people, businesses and government agencies do all they can to keep as much water as possible flowing into the lake and not allow it to be diverted for any of a number of other uses.

The most obvious and immediate impact to be felt if the level of the lake fell by as much as 11 feet, which the council’s report says is entirely possible, would be the loss of such industries as brine shrimp, mineral extraction, and recreation.

The lake and its surrounding, marshy, ecosystem is also a key destination for millions of migratory birds and home to a variety of other plant and animal species.

Over the long term, the damage that could be done, not just to the lake and its immediate environs, but to the whole of the Wasatch Front and beyond, would be the choking dust clouds that would rise from a dry lakebed. Dust that would carry with it decades of natural and man-made chemicals which have run into the lake and settled to the bottom over the decades and centuries.

Or is the air around here not already dirty enough for you?

The steps outlined in the report include some good, if obvious, ideas that center on conservation, on making sure that more of the water that flows through the area actually winds up in the lake. Those ideas include regulating and metering the flow of water that is not used for municipal drinking water supplies but for irrigation of lawns and crops.

That would be expensive, but well worth it.

Also, a common feature of water rights laws, in Utah and elsewhere, is that the owner of a water right is trapped in a use-it-or-lose-it situation. Not using all of a property’s assigned water one year or season, for what the law calls “a beneficial use,” puts the owners at risk for losing the rights next year to the water they didn’t use this year.

That law should be changed so that water left to find its way to the Great Salt Lake, instead of being poured onto farms, orchards, golf courses and front lawns, will rightly, and legally, count as a beneficial use and not count against an owner’s future rights.

Such a change would make perfect sense, because directing water to the lake keeps the Great Salt Lake ecosystem alive and well and is about as beneficial a use as could be imagined.

Meanwhile, while we are working on all of that, Utah leaders should take a step that the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council was not quite brave enough to advise. And that’s to abandon, once and for all, all those goofy plans to build dams in the Bear River system, dams likely to do no more than hasten the demise of the Once Great Salt Lake.