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Editor's note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday issued a proclamation suspending any new surface water and groundwater appropriations within the Great Salt Lake basin, citing concerns about how Utah's ongoing drought is impacting the lake.
The governor's office said that the proclamation doesn't affect existing water rights holders or those with appropriation applications within the Bear, Weber and Jordan river basins, whose rights will be allowed to be "used and developed," hopefully through more efficient means. The measure instead means the state has temporarily closed any new applications for water appropriations.
The order doesn't apply to Tooele County and the West Desert. There are also some exceptions for proposed nonconsumptive uses, as well as applications with a plan to offset any depletion or applications for "small amounts of water associated with individual domestic uses," according to the office. The suspension will remain in place until further notice.
"Extreme drought, climate change and increased demand continue to threaten the Great Salt Lake. We are united in our efforts to protect this critical resource and are taking action to ensure existing flows continue to benefit the lake," Cox said in a statement. "When conditions improve, the suspension can be lifted."
The Great Salt Lake reached an all-time record low again this July. The lake's levels are currently listed at 4,188.7 feet elevation, but its levels are expected to slowly rise again in the coming months as the outdoor watering season comes to an end. Barring a strong snowpack collection and effective snowmelt, levels may reach another all-time low next year — especially as the irrigation season returns and water is diverted out of the lake's tributaries.
The governor's office adds that the lake's decline has "far-reaching consequences," including more dust, worsening air quality and reduced snow, as well as less lake access and habitat loss. All of it can result in "economic repercussions" for Utah.
Cox's decision is supported by members of the Utah Legislature, including Senate President Stuart Adams and Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson. Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, and Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who co-chair the Legislature's Water Development Commission, also back the proclamation, saying they received a groundwater update from Utah's state engineer last month that "concerned us."
Hinkins said that despite efforts to preserve surface water within the lake's basin, ongoing groundwater appropriation "seemed to work against our efforts to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake."
"We believe the moratorium is an important step in protecting the Great Salt Lake and securing Utah's water supply now and in the future," Snider added. "As a commission, we will continue to look at innovative and data-driven ways to effectively manage our state's water resources."