A shrinking Great Salt Lake and how 12 strategies may save its future

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, KSL | Posted - Aug. 29, 2020 at 9:24 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Eleven feet.

That is how much the level of the Great Salt Lake has dropped due the region’s thirst for water and decades of unmerciful drought. Experts predict it could drop 3 to 4 feet in less than a decade from now if action isn’t taken soon.

And a new report notes that not doing anything to save the lake could cost the state’s economy billions.

Growing recognition of the value of the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, however, may ultimately be the savior of the Great Salt Lake.

The report released by the Great Salt Lake Advisory identifies 12 strategies to protect the lake, which delivers $1.3 billion in economic value to the state and is responsible for 7,000 people in the workplace.

“We are hopeful that actions can be taken sooner than later. We are certainly in a trend of declining levels of the lake, but we have the opportunity to take action before a crisis overwhelms us,” said Don Leonard, chairman of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.

Public outreach that began in 2017 solicited recommendations from dozens upon dozens of people and organizations with an interest in the viability of the lake, which is the largest inland body of water on the Pacific flyway and thus critical habit for thousands of migrating birds.

Beyond its ecosystem value, the lake supports a variety of industries and is one of the most popular asked about tourist destinations in the state — commonly referred to as America’s Dead Sea.

Its unique interaction with Utah’s atmosphere provides an estimated 5% to 8% of the area’s snowpack, but as it shrinks, the exposed lakebed is causing challenges to air quality with windblown dust and dust that lands on snowpack, accelerating its rate of melt.

So as the lake shrinks, so does the viability of the things that depend on it — industry, wildlife, tourism — and more such as snowpack and cleaner air.

Leonard said when the public input ended, 72 recommendations were winnowed down to 12, and now it is time for people to take a look, and take action.

“We want people to take this report seriously, review its recommendations and actions and move forward. The Great Salt Lake has grow in support, particularly with the Legislature,” Leonard said.

The Salt Lake City skyline rises above a receding Great Salt Lake as pictured from Antelope Island on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL)

That support will be critical in the success of these strategies, many of which will require changes in the state’s prior appropriation doctrine, or the law that requires water to be put to beneficial use or it may be forfeited through a judicial process.

Identified first as a strategy, for example, is redefining the concept of “beneficial use” to include a right to conserved water that allows that saved water to not be forfeited.

“Presently, Utah Water Law discourages conservation of water by penalizing water right owners who do not use the full quantity of their water rights, providing no incentive for users to use less water,” the report notes.

If a user saves that water, for example, and allows it to run downstream into the lake, that user over time may lose the right to that full quantity of water.

The report concludes that Utah water law will need to be changed to recognize that right to conserved water.

Other recommendations in the report seek ways to quantify the amount of that conserved water and how much reaches the Great Salt Lake, encouraging more agricultural conservation without that same risk of forfeiting water and metering all secondary water to encourage greater financial incentives to conserve water.

Shorebirds and ducks look for food in the water of the Great Salt Lake near Antelope Island on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL)

Strategies also include greater conservation at the watershed scale, the development of a path for greater acquisition of water rights at the state level by gift, donation, leasing or other means. The acquisition of those water rights could then mean dedication of the resource for tributaries into the Great Salt Lake.

The report notes that greater state agency coordination on behalf of the lake needs to continue and the state should safeguard and protect groundwater as a source that feeds the lake.

None of these recommendations are necessarily an easy lift, but Leonard notes the good progress that has already been made in changes to both policy and law that have been moving the state in the right direction.

In the report, it notes that costs associated with implementation of the strategies are high, but so is inaction.

“It is clear that the financial impacts could be substantial and far reaching, and the infrastructure costs could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars,” the report said. “Similarly, the cost of not addressing the challenges could be substantial and far reaching, one estimate reaching $1.69 billion to $2.17 billion per year if the lake were to continue to decline”

Leonard said the good news is the Utah Legislature is on board with helping save the Great Salt Lake, unanimously passing HCR10 in 2019 to direct state agencies to delve into solutions to helping the declining lake.

“We know there is an interested listener on Capitol Hill and we look forward to working with them to implement these changes,” he said.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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