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Panel looking at future of Great Salt Lake

Panel looking at future of Great Salt Lake

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Great Salt Lake is state treasure but faces a long list of threats and lacks a unifying vision for how it should be managed, a newly formed government panel said Tuesday.

Now the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council -- a mix of government and industry officials and environmentalists -- is trying to decide whether a new approach for overseeing the lake is needed.

One of the decisions will be whether to create an overarching commission similar to those in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the Puget Sound. The next would be how much authority to give the commission.

Gov. Jon Huntsman created the council in an executive order in August to talk about the future of the lake and whether it's time for a dramatic shift in how it's managed.

Meeting at the Capitol, 10 members of the council identified several threats to the lake, including population growth, pollutants and a lack of water. Most pressing, some members say, is the paucity of scientific information about the health of the lake system.

"The biggest threat is the lack of knowledge," said Leland Myers of the Central Davis Sewer District.

Without a basic understanding of how the lake works -- and reliable indicators to take its pulse -- management will continue to be fragmented and without a full understanding of the implications of management decisions, he said.

Walt Baker, director of the state Division of Water Quality, has been making the case for the formation of a commission. He's not a member of the council but was glad to see its members taking the idea seriously.

"I think it's overdue, this discussion," he said.

The council spent its first four meetings hearing presentations on issues facing the lake. On Tuesday, it took the first steps toward deciding that the lake might need to be managed in a different way.

"The fact that we don't have any coordinated management I think is a problem," said David Livermore of The Nature Conservancy.

Current management of the lake -- whether it's duck ponds, pollution or lakeside leases -- is handled by a mishmash of local, state and federal agencies. Council members said those agencies do well with their piece of the action but no one's keeping an eye on the overall health of the lake system.

There's no shortage of issues facing the lake, council members said.

The council's chairman, State Sen. Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful, said one of the biggest problems is that the lake simply isn't getting enough water.

"We're running in the red out there," he said.

Part of the reason is the rapid growth along the Wasatch Front and the continued diversion of mountain stream flows before they reach the Great Salt Lake, which has no drain and supports millions of migrating birds and businesses that harvest brine shrimp and extract minerals.

There are already early signs of trouble, said Bill Fenimore, of the Wild Bird Center in Layton. State researchers last month said flow from a set of natural springs near the north end of the lake has dropped 80 percent since the late 1960s.

The concern just isn't that more people are moving into the area but that development is creeping toward the lake's shore.

"We're likely to see more and more of that. The question is what do we do?" said Wilford Sommerkorn, the planning director for Salt Lake City.

A commission overseeing the lake could play a role in helping local decisions take into account the larger consequences on the lake, council members said.

The group is expected to draw up a list of recommendations, some of which could be taken up by the Legislature in 2010.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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