Wednesday, 20 December 2017 08:32

Adjacent Land Use Matters for Great Salt Lake

Winter 2018 -Executive Director’s Message-

“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

            - The Lorax

The lay of the land-

Less than 20 miles from Gunnison Island, a protected sanctuary for the third largest breeding population of American White Pelicans in North America. In the same neighborhood as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty that was designated Utah’s Official State Work of Land Art in March 2017. Slightly more than 10 miles from the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge - Utah’s first national wildlife refuge established in 1928. And as the gull flies, about 25 miles southeast from the Golden Spike National Historic Monument, a popular tourist attraction that celebrates the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. 

Where our story continues-

In the Spring 2003 newsletter, I wrote about an ill-conceived proposal that promised to generate economic livelihood for Box Elder County by constructing the nation’s 4th largest landfill on the western flank of the southern tip of the Promontory Peninsula. The Promontory Peninsula is a misunderstood but impressive landscape that’s emblematic of the classic Basin and Range geomorphology. The extension of its magnificent reach of mountains and scrubby productive upland habitats creates a visually notable portion of the distinctive northern shoreline of Great Salt Lake. Its uplands possesses a prodigious array of raptors including American Bald Eagles, Burrowing Owls-a species that is included on the Utah Sensitive Species List, Long-billed Curlews, mule deer, waterfowl that take refuge on its eastern shoreline in Bear River Bay, and a passel of other critters that call this place home. 

15 years ago, a Class I permit was being pursued by the applicant Promontory, LLC. Several other proposals for landfill sites in Box Elder County were also being considered but only this one rose to the top. The rationale for the landfill was based on projected expanding waste disposal needs of the rapidly growing population in northern Utah.  A Class I permit means that contracts to accept waste can only be made with local governments and municipalities within Utah of wastes generated within those boundaries, along with approval by the Executive Secretary/Executive Director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  The waste stream that can be accepted consists of municipal, commercial, industrial, construction/demolition waste and special wastes and small quantity generator hazardous waste such as low level infectious waste, heavy metals, solvents, a variety of organic compounds like PCB’s that are conditional under certain regulatory codes within the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control (the Division) in DEQ.

The Box Elder County Planning Commission held a series of public hearings on the Promontory, LLC landfill. Objections and concerns were expressed about the obvious externalities that come with this type of land use. Many people including adjacent property owners within 1000’ of the proposed site, local citizens, conservation interests including FRIENDS, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and a family owned Great Salt Lake mineral extraction operation in Gunnison Bay that produces mineral supplements for human consumption spoke to these issues.  Among those concerns were fugitive trash that inevitably finds its way across the landscape, the relationship between air, land, and water contamination from wastes that can impact wildlife and the ecology of Great Salt Lake, and the need for yet another facility given available waste markets. And in general why did Box Elder County choose to promote this type of land use as an economic generator? Following a public commenting period through the Division, a Class I permit was issued in March 2004. 

The writing on the wall-

In 2009, there was an ownership change. In 2011, the Class I permit was renewed. In 2014/15 another new ownership defaulted on its contract and so the permit reverted back to the prior owner. In 2016, Promontory Point Resources, LLC (the company) purchased the 2,000 acres and the Class I permit that came with it which is due to expire in 2021. Throughout this period of what could be construed as Utah’s very own version of a classic Marx Brothers movie, no ground on Promontory Peninsula was disturbed. The likely reason for this is because the market for in-state waste is already secured by 10 existing Utah landfill facilities that have a combined life storage capacity of 363 years. Included in this lot is the Box Elder County landfill that has its own Class I permit with existing capacity and room to expand if need be. 

Clearly, as a business venture and an economic generator for Box Elder County, this prospect seemed to be going nowhere until May 2017, when earthmovers began carving up the landscape. So what changed?

In March 2017, two things happened. On March 10th during the 2017 General Session of the Utah State Legislature, (H.J.R.020) Joint Resolution Approving Class V Landfill for Promontory Point Resources, LLC sponsored by Rep. Lee B. Perry (Perry, UT) and Sen. Peter C. Knudson (Brigham City) became effective. And on March 17th the company submitted its application to the Division for a Class V permit. A Class V permit would allow the company to receive the same types of wastes as a Class I but from out of state, and with the addition of “special wastes as enumerated in the operation plan as defined in Utah Administrative Code, R 315-315. Initial disposal rates would be approximately 200,000 tons per year and approximately 750 tons per day. Depending on the waste sources, the volumes would increase annually.

The resolution “gives approval for the construction and operation of a Class V commercial nonhazardous solid waste landfill” for the company because “[it] would have favorable economic impact on Box Elder County in the form of new permanent jobs and host fees”. Note the “nonhazardous” category that is certainly debatable. Although H.J.R. 020 grants provisional approval of a Class V permit by the legislature, it is still contingent upon approval of the operational plan by Box Elder County, the Director of the Division, and requires the governor’s signature.  What’s important to note here is that Utah already has 10 Class V permitted landfills with a collective waste storage capacity of more than 2,036-yrs. Once again this begs the question of whether taking more out of state waste is really the best way for Box Elder County to explore economic opportunities? And if so, then why does it need it to be adjacent to Great Salt Lake which is already recognized as an economic generator to the tune of $1.3B annually to Utah’s GDP? 

Taking advantage of regulatory loopholes-

The company is in the process of carving out an unsightly blot on the landscape under a Class I permit but it has no intention of operating as a Class I facility because it’s not commercially viable. It’s able to do this because the construction requirements for Class I and Class V facilities are identical. And it’s taking advantage of an unfortunate loophole in the existing regulatory requirements that allows the construction of landfill facilities to begin even before contracts with waste providers have been secured. And even before a robust market analysis has been conducted to determine whether additional capacity for nonhazardous solid waste is even needed. It just can’t begin storing any wastes. This loophole allowed the company to get a jump start on the construction under the assumption that it would get its Class V permit in short order. Given that its already spent close to $16 million of state grant money in construction, the company probably felt getting the permit was a safe bet. The real money is in accepting out-of-state waste that nobody else wants –  California Hazardous (Cal-Haz) waste, and coal ash (or in the regulatory jargon: coal combustion residual). This is especially true given the location’s ready access to a main east-west rail line.  Apparently, there’s big money to be made storing the really nasty stuff.

Adding insult to injury, the company has begun the work without securing bonding arrangements to ensure that the state has funds to reckon with the landscape if the owners decide to walk. If wastes have been received, the state would have to relocate them. If not, the state would treat the site much like an abandoned building without reclamation of the land. Either way, taxpayers would be left holding the bag. 

A “Needs Assessment Report” for the Class V permit was submitted by the company along with its application to the Division. A review for data validation and analysis by a third party to “fulfill the requirements of Section 19-6-108, subsections (10) and (11), of the Utah Solid and Hazardous Waste Act was completed on July 10, 2017. The findings are extremely troubling. “ Overall the analysis does not fully comply with the requirements of the Act as it is missing content to meet all statutory requirements, does not provide a robust market analysis and therefore does not establish the need for the facility, and has several important data and information gaps.”  Among those gaps, the report fails to provide potential environmental impacts. 

So where does all this take us? 

The application is on hold until the Division receives the completed Needs Assessment Report. Meanwhile, the Division has received comments from the Utah Geological Survey, Division of Wildlife Resources, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, GSL industries, and the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council identifying specific concerns about the project. You can read them at If the Division determines that a Class V permit has merit and meets specific evaluative criteria a draft will go out for public comment. There is no question that FRIENDS will be there to challenge a land use that has negative and long-term impacts on Great Salt Lake. We hope you’ll be there with us. 

In saline,



Executive Director’s Message – Summer 2017 

“Great Salt Lake is an important resource and provides so many ecological, biological, economic and recreational opportunities that we cannot ignore it much longer. Climate change and our current hydrologic cycle may be our new normal. If so, we will all have to learn to get by with less water and the necessity to allocate some water to environmental preservation must finally be given equal dignity in the appropriation process as diversionary rights that deplete the water supply. We clearly have the ability to do this, and the legal tools to make it happen.”

-Steve E. Clyde, Clyde Snow & Sessions Water Rights for Great Salt Lake: Is it the Impossible Dream?

 I’ll begin my message with a big, briny thank you to Steve Clyde. Thank you, Steve for your initiative in opening a critical, timely and in some circles controversial door for engagement to talk about the legal tools that are available to provide water for Great Salt Lake. Clyde, an attorney with Clyde Snow & Sessions, is one of the state’s most respected water attorneys. At the Utah Water Law Conference last October, I had the great pleasure of hearing his presentation: Water Rights for Great Salt Lake: Is it the Impossible Dream?  (Read it at To say the least, I thought Great Salt Lake’s ship had finally come in. And although his emphasis was on the Lake, the takeaway in his talk was about the importance of our natural systems and how they should be given “equal dignity in the [water] appropriation process.” Amen. 

 In fact, if I was stranded on a desert island – maybe in this case our very own Antelope Island – and only had 4 references with me to read, those references would be Clyde’s white paper, Professor Robert Adler’s Law Review article Toward Comprehensive Watershed Restoration and Protection for Great Salt Lake, 1999, Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front, 2016, a white paper by USU Professor Wayne Wurtsbaugh et al, and the 2013 Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan compiled by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The Division is in the Department of Natural Resources and has jurisdictional responsibility for managing the Lake in perpetuity as a public trust for the people of Utah. 

I know what you’re thinking right now – Geeze! That girl needs to get out more! But I do consider these 4 sources among the “Great Books” of Great Salt Lake.  

For nearly 4 years now, I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Steve on the Governor’s Water Strategy Advisory Team (Advisory Team). The purpose of the Advisory Team was to inform Governor Herbert’s 50-year State Water Plan that will be designed to address projected population growth by 2060 and Utah’s water needs. In fact, because of this valuable opportunity I’ve had the pleasure of working with a wide range of talent and perspectives on water in Utah. And I’ve learned a lot. 

Forty one of us, all volunteers, were tasked by the Governor to “(1) solicit and evaluate potential water management strategies; (2) frame various water management options and implications of those options for public feedback; and (3) based on broad input develop a set of recommended strategies and ideas to be considered a part of the 50-yr water plan.” 

You can read more about this process in my Executive Director’s Message (Winter 2017) and review the final Recommended State Water Strategy, July 2017.

The Recommended State Water Strategy is the result of respectful and robust debate among team members working in small groups to identify the issues and recommendations that support the eleven key policy questions in the strategy. We covered a lot of ground. The process was not without its fits and starts. And as you would expect there were the obvious sticking points particularly in the areas of conservation, climate change, and the need for new infrastructure like the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear River development projects. These issues required numerous draft revisions and negotiations among the team members that took us right up to the 11th hour. 

Although Utah is the second most arid state in the nation we’re not running out of water. We just need to be smarter about inventorying/accounting, pricing, and integrating the way we understand the dynamics and the use of the resource. 

But Godzilla is back! This time in the form of climate change. Climate change will require supreme due diligence in our commitment to be responsible and timely in the way we implement strategies to mitigate its impacts. Climate change is included in the strategy. The bottom line here is that although there is no perfect horse, we worked extremely hard to create a product that exhibited a shared long-term vision. A vision that, among a variety of things, includes Great Salt Lake and our environment, and ways to “modernize” the framework for Utah water law and policy to pay due regard to these important values. 

 On July 19th, the ink was finally dry on the document when we presented it to Governor Herbert at the State Capitol. He’ll use it to prioritize his agenda moving forward. Even though our assignment was accomplished at that point, the strategy really marks a beginning for further engagement in our important work for Utah’s water future and for the Lake. Ideally, it will be a working document that we’ll use to continue to seek ways to create accountability. We’re already talking about reconvening the Advisory Team annually for updates on how/or what we’re doing based on the recommendations we worked so hard to forge. The collective water wisdom that went into this exercise provides us with a useful framework that helps us focus our collective work on these many different fronts with an eye on our Lake. 

Speaking of collective work on the Great Salt Lake water front, at the July 12th Great Salt Lake Advisory Council meeting, a draft report Water for Great Salt Lake, July 2017 was presented to council members. The report was commissioned by the GSL Advisory Council and compiled by SWCA Environmental Consultants. Its purpose is “to facilitate a discussion on how to reverse the long-term decline in Great Salt Lake water levels by considering potential strategies to maintain and/or increase the surface elevation (water levels) of Great Salt Lake. ” 

Currently, the draft consists of sixty-six strategies/tools submitted by groups and individuals in response to an invitation to more than 100 recipients that went out last May. The strategies are divided into categories that include: Coordination, Environmental, Legal, Operational, Policy and Structural. Many of the ideas in the draft are the same issues that were raised in the Recommended State Water Strategy. One more call will go out for any further contributions before the Advisory Council reviews the input and begins prioritizing the strategies at its September meeting. The game is afoot.

As you know, it’s important to go wide and take a regional perspective and recognize the significance of Great Salt Lake in the context of other saline systems around the West. We need to be able to assess how those systems are doing because they also provide critical habitats for millions of migratory birds for resting, staging, and nesting during their journey. That’s just what National Audubon Society’s report Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline, July 2017 does. This report is another important tool that helps inform our understanding about how water – or the lack of it due to upstream diversions and climate change -- affects ecosystem health. 

With the additional insights provided by the Great Salt Lake Level Matrix in the 2013 Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan that visually describes how different Lake elevations influence habitats and ecosystem services that contribute $1.3B to Utah’s economy.  And the recently available Integrated Water Resource Management Model developed by CH2M for the state to help inform resource management decisions for Great Salt Lake, the time is ripe to move forward on the water front. 

As Steve Clyde proposed in his presentation at the Utah Water Law Conference, “ We clearly have the ability to do this, and the legal tools to make it happen.” 

In the words of the late economist, Rudiger Dornbusch “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.” 

So let’s make it happen. We’re ready. How about you?

In saline and summer,



by Emma Penrod, Salt Lake Tribune

Modern civilization has significantly reduced the size of the Great Salt Lake, but the authors of a new study remain optimistic that a cultural shift on the Wasatch Front could still save it.

Since the Mormon pioneers arrived in 1847, Utah’s top landmark has shrunk to half its historic size, according to the study published in October in the journal Nature Geoscience. Most of that decline can be attributed to human water use, the researchers at Utah State University say — but that means humans could reverse the trend, too.

It doesn’t mean that will be easy.

The lake’s size fluctuates naturally, with seasonal and long-term weather patterns, according to Wayne Wurtsbaugh, lead author on the study and a professor emeritus of watershed science at USU. When the Wasatch Front experiences drought, lake levels drop and they rise when there’s flooding, as they did during the early 1980s.

But the lake has been on a 160-year decline, data suggest — a trend that Wurtsbaugh and colleagues attribute almost wholly to humans taking water out of rivers and streams that once fed the Great Salt Lake for use in homes, farms and industries.

“There are big ups and downs,” the USU scientist said, “but the long-term trend is down.”

Yet Wurtsbaugh said the Great Salt Lake hasn’t shrunk beyond the point of no return, as have other saline lakes like Iran’s Lake Urmia and California’s Owens Lake.

“We’re not at a critical point … where they’ve lost kind of everything,” he said. “We’re in much better shape than some of these lakes.”

Click Here to read the entire Salt Lake Tribune Article  

Monday, 04 December 2017 13:09

Bear River Commission Comments from FRIENDS

Comments from Lynn de Freitas below, followed by additional commentary submitted by Wayne Wurtsbaugh. 

December 4, 2017

Re: 20-Year Compact Review Members of the Bear River Commission

On behalf of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake (FRIENDS), thank you for this opportunity to comment on the need to amend the Bear River Compact. FRIENDS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit membership organization. Our mission is to increase public awareness and appreciation of the Lake and to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem for future generations through education, research, advocacy, and the arts. Because Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake that is located at the bottom of a 22,000- square mile hydrologic drainage basin, the Lake depends on precipitation and water inflows from the watershed to sustain its important ecosystem services. These ecosystem services include critical habitats and food resources for millions of migratory birds that stage, rest and nest at the Lake, as well as important economic resources that include the brine shrimp industry, mineral extraction, recreation and tourism, and extraordinary archeological resources that are symbolic of this unique place in the Great Basin. On behalf of its members, FRIENDS participates in processes to protect and improve Great Salt Lake health and sustainability. We do this by helping to forge sustainable policy development and encourage management and regulatory measures that represent responsible stewardship practices.

For the purposes of these comments, I would like to encourage the Commission to reexamine the Compact in light of the devastating impact to the Great Salt Lake ecosystem that will result should development of the Bear River go forward as outlined in the Compact. Specifically, Article V of the Compact refers to further development of the remaining water in the Lower Division and specifies that: (1) Idaho shall have the first right to deplete 125,000 acre-feet of Bear River water; (2) Utah shall have the second right to deplete 275,000 acre-feet; and, (3) that both Idaho and Utah shall each have an additional right to deplete 75,000 acre-feet.

Should this additional 550,000 acre-feet of water be developed, the Utah Division of Water Resources estimates that the Lake could be lowered by as much as 12.3 feet. While such a drop in water level will essentially dry up both Bear River Bay and Farmington Bay, long before this occurs the increase in salinity in the dropping Lake will exceed a level that will destroy both the brine shrimp and brine fly populations that sustain over 7.5 million birds each year. Additionally, the likely impact on the $1.3 billion that the Lake contributes to Utah’s economy each year is incalculable.

Recognizing that the provisions of the Compact were agreed to in light of precipitation and water trends that have changed substantially in the last forty years, without regard to the “what if’s” of climate change and mega drought cycles, and at a time when we knew much less than we know now about the Lake, and its importance both ecologically and economically, I urge you to amend the Compact to account for these changed circumstances and to the known impacts these depletions will have to Great Salt Lake.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments and for the opportunity to submit them as a part of the 20-Year Compact Review.

In saline and sustainability,

Lynn de Freitas, Executive Director

FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake


Bear River Compact and the Great Salt Lake                                             Wayne Wurtsbaugh, Dec. 3, 2017

The Bear River Compact needs to be modified to incorporate the current understanding of the value and of the hydrology of Great Salt Lake. When the Compact was formed, the public assumed that any water that reached the lake was wasted. However, we now understand the critically important role of this water for industry, aquaculture, recreation, health, climate control and bird populations of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. The dollar value of the lake is currently assessed at $1.3 billion (Bioeconomics 2012), but that value does not include intrinsic cultural or ecological values, nor the value of the lake for protecting human health and providing an abundant snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains.    

To date, water use for agriculture, urban and other uses has lowered the lake 11 ft. from its natural level (Wurtsbaugh et al. 2017; Wurtsbaugh et al. 2016), and exposed 590,000 acres (54%) of the lakebed. The shallow and critically important Bear River Bay and Farmington Bay estuaries have 75%-85% of their areas dried during the summer, limiting habitat for water birds. The exposed lakebed allows dust storms to impact the Wasatch Front cities, creating respiratory problems (Griffin and Kellogg 2004) for the population.   Water development of the Bear River has already compromised the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.      

The current plan of the Bear River Compact allows for an additional 550,000 acre-feet of water to be depleted from the system, which will greatly decrease flows into Great Salt Lake.   The median estimate of the impact of this flow reduction would be to lower the lake an additional 4.5 ft. from current conditions, expose a total of 680,000 acres of lakebed, decrease the volume to 30% of natural, and increase salinities in the south arm of the lake (Gilbert Bay) to ~220 g/L.   Bear River and Farmington Bays would be dry during most of the year. Note, however, that the potential impact of the 550,000 acre-feet of water depletion is even more severe, and maximum estimates of this by the Utah Division of Water Resources suggest that the lake could be lowered an additional 10 ft., exposing approximately 785,000 acres of lakebed, decreasing the volume to 20% of the natural value and increasing salinity to near saturation. Given the range of predictions from the median to the maximum impacts, it is obvious that more work on the hydrology of the watershed is needed, but both scenarios indicate that flow reductions would have profound impacts on the environment and human health.

To put these impacts in perspective, managers need to consider the desiccation of Owens Lake in southern California.   When water was diverted from the lake it dried completely, exposing 70,000 acres of lakebed. Dust storms have impacted the health of the small community of Bishop and even more distant cities. To mitigate these impacts, the Los Angeles will spend $3.6 billion over 25 years to protect the health of residents (Ramboll Environ US Corporation 2016). Consider what the impacts could be on the 2.5 million residents of the Wasatch Front if 685,000-785,000 acres of the lakebed of Great Salt Lake are exposed!   Additionally, the ecology of the lake would be severely damaged. The dried estuary areas would greatly reduce bird use. Brine shrimp populations, which are important source of food for birds and the $60 million dollar aquaculture industry, would be decimated.   If salinities increased to 220 g/L, brine shrimp production would be reduced to less than 10% of that at natural lake levels (Barnes and Wurtsbaugh 2015), and if salinities increased to near saturation, brine shrimp and all invertebrate food production in the lake would disappear--we would have another "Dead Sea". It is fortunate that the Bear River Compact is under review, given that we now realize the major impacts that additional water development would have on the lake.

Major water depletions of fresh water from the Bear River and other tributaries of the lake are not warranted until we maximize conservation of this precious resource. The future growth of the Wasatch Front is sometimes cited as a need for water development in Utah. However, given that Utah currently has among the highest per capita water use in the country, and that people in cities such as Tucson use only 50% of what Salt Lake City residents use, it is clear that we have tremendous potential to conserve water.   Water conservation programs in the agricultural sector also need to be implemented and enforced. Modification of existing, and outdated water laws in the tristate region could also allow significant transfers of water from the agricultural sector to provide for the expanding urban population and to protect Great Salt Lake and other natural systems (Clyde 2016).

Thank you for considering my input, and please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions. Wayne Wurtsbaugh, Emeritus Professor, Utah State University (


Barnes, B.D., and Wurtsbaugh, W.A. 2015. The effects of salinity on plankton and benthic communities in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA: a microcosm experiment. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 72(6): 807-817.

Bioeconomics, I. 2012. Economic significance of the Great Salt Lake to the State of Utah. Great Salt Lake Advisory Council (Activities), Salt Lake City, Utah.

Clyde, S.E. 2016. Water rights for Great Salt Lake: is it the impossible dream? p. 1-29, Utah Water Law, CLE International, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Griffin, D.W., and Kellogg, C.A. 2004. Dust storms and their impact on ocean and human health. EcoHealth 1: 284-295.

Ramboll Environ US Corporation. 2016. Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District: 2016 Owens Valley Planning Area PM10 State implementation plan. Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, Bishop, California. 1494 p.

Wurtsbaugh, W.A., Miller, C., Null, S.E., DeRose, R.J., Wilcock, P., Hahnenberger, M., Howe, F., and Moore, J. 2017. Decline of the world's saline lakes. Nature Geoscience 10(11): 816-821 (DOI: 810.1038/ngeo3052).

Wurtsbaugh, W.A., Miller, C., Null, S.E., Wilcock, P., Hahnenberger, M., and Howe, F. 2016. Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front. White paper issued from the Quinney College of Natural Resources (Utah).

Friday, 01 December 2017 11:30

Join us for our Holiday Open House

2017 Holiday Open House 2

Join FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake for our annual Holiday Open House.

Thursday, December 7 from 5:30-9:00 at the FRIENDS' office: 150 South 600 East, St, 2B in Salt Lake City. 

Pop in, raise a glass in celebration of Great Salt Lake, and connect with FRIENDS. 




Screen Shot 2017 11 30 at 8.22.54 AM

 The Great Salt Lake in Utah is roughly the same area as 75 Manhattans. It feeds and houses millions of birds of hundreds of species, provides the namesake of Utah’s capital city and some credit it for the state’s trademarked claim to “the greatest snow on earth.”

And it’s vanishing.

Since 1847, the volume of water in the lake has dropped nearly 50 percent. More recently, the change has been so dramatic, you can see it from space. In 2016, the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest levels in recorded history.

“Do we want to in 50 years change the name of our city to Salt City because the lake has gone away?” asked Wayne A. Wurtsbaugh, a retired aquatic ecologist at Utah State University.

He and his colleagues reported in an analysis published in Nature Geoscience last month that human consumption — not seasonal fluctuations or climate change — is primarily to blame for the Great Salt Lake’s desiccation. They hope that creating a better understanding of water flowing into and out of the lake may serve as a model for managing salt lakes that face similar threats.

Continue reading the main story

Satellite images showing the Aral Sea, which crosses the borders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in 2000, left, and again in 2014. CreditNASA Earth Observatory

The near collapse of salt lakes in places like Central Asia’s Aral Sea, Iran’s Lake Urmia and California’s Salton Sea deprived local environments of natural filtration systems, wildlife habitats and opportunities for human use. Left behind were dust storms that threaten human health and agricultural fields.

In the case of the Great Salt Lake, the researchers warn that another 30 square miles of lake bed could be exposed in the next 30 to 50 years if planned development and overuse continue.

Continue reading the main story

“Before we did this analysis people were just saying, ‘Oh the lake goes up; the lake goes down,’ ” Dr. Wurtsbaugh said. But natural variability in water levels and climate change are no longer excuses for inaction, he and his colleagues write.

When the researchers looked at historical data, they saw no trends in water level fluctuations. But development and water diversion since the mid-19th century have consistently reduced water entering the lake. Agriculture — including the use of water for alfalfa, pasture, hay, grain and corn — caused a significant loss.

Reliance on the lake’s waters by a growing population in recent years has been pushing the lake to its tipping point.

Iran’s shrinking Lake Urmia, shown in 1998, left, and 2011. CreditNASA Earth Observatory

“It isn’t the water use 100 years ago that had an effect,” he added. “It’s really the last 15 to 20 years that are relevant to how the lake is now.”

To save bodies of water like Great Salt Lake, reducing consumption will be critical in arid basins, the authors argue. They recommend a careful analysis of how lake water is moving in and out of lake systems to identify distinct sources of declines, as they have with Great Salt Lake. Doing so will help regulators better weigh trade-offs between water use and maintaining lakes at sustainable levels.

These trade-offs have become apparent in previous approaches to preserving saline lakes. The Russian government built a $106 million dike in 2005 that sealed off the Aral Sea, which had been drying up because of agriculture. While this replaced a collapsed fishing industry with a smaller one, the Aral Sea is just 5 percent of the size it once was, and dust storms continue to be a problem.

An existing rail causeway dividing Great Salt Lake could similarly be used to manage lake levels. And continuing to divert water from the Colorado River Basin offers another potential solution, but not without costs.

Water conservation could also help. It worked to save Mono Lake in California. And in Tucson, Ariz., another arid basin, water collection, rock gardens with fewer plants and drip irrigation have significantly cut water use.


Monday, 30 October 2017 08:30

Bear River Commission Public Hearing

The Bear River Commission is undertaking a 20 year review of the Bear River Compact. A public hearing is scheduled for Thursday, November 2, 2017 at 7:00 PM at the Utah Department of Natural Resources (1594 West North Temple, Salt Lake City).  


In addition to the public hearing, the Commission encourages the public to provide written comments.  All written and e-mail comments must be received at the Commission’s office by 5:00 p.m. on Monday, December 4, 2017. 


Bear River Commission

RE:  20-Year Compact Review

106 West 500 South, Suite 101

Bountiful, UT  84010


or via e-mail to:    


Jody L. Williams

Chair and Federal Commissioner


The Bear River originates high in the Uinta Mountains in Utah, flows north past (but not into) Bear Lake before taking a sharp turn south, then flows through Idaho and back into Utah, eventually terminating in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and Great Salt Lake.  It is the largest river in North America that does not flow to an ocean.  Although it is 500 miles long, it ends up only 90 miles from its headwaters, after crossing state lines between Utah, Wyoming and Idaho five times.  The twenty year annual average of water discharging into Great Salt Lake is 850,000 acre feet. 


With Congressional consent, the U.S. Constitution allows states to enter into agreements and interstate compacts.  Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, which all contribute water to the Bear River, were developing at different rates, and the three states recognized the need to equitably apportion the Bear River among them.  They requested permission from Congress to negotiate a compact, which was granted in 1946.  Negotiations continued until the three states signed the original Bear River Compact in 1955.  President Eisenhower signed the Compact in 1958.


The purposes of the Compact are to “remove the causes of present and future controversy over the distribution and use of the waters of the Bear River; to provide for efficient use of water for multiple purposes; to permit additional development of the water resources of Bear River; and to promote interstate comity.” 


Early irrigation appropriations in the three states left little water available for new uses and lead to conflicts.  The Bear River Compact provided a solution by grandfathering existing water rights, dividing the remaining water among the states, and authorizing new storage above Bear Lake.  It is important to note that although the Compact divides water among the three states, administration of water is directed by the individual states.  The Compact also created the Bear River Commission, composed of nine Commissioners, three representing each signatory state, and an additional Commissioner appointed by the President representing the United States, to serve without vote. 


The three states soon recognized that changes to the Compact were needed.  Issues such as unrestricted groundwater development, no limit on depletion of appropriated water, the need for additional storage development above Bear Lake and a potential race between Idaho and Utah to develop water below Bear Lake were again causing conflict among the basin states.  In 1970, the states formally began amendment negotiations, and in 1976, they ratified an Amended Compact.  Congress approved the Amended Bear River Compact, and President Carter signed it in February of 1980.  The Amended Compact granted Idaho the first right to develop and deplete an additional 125,000 acre feet and Utah the second right to develop and deplete 275,000 acre feet below Bear Lake.  It authorized additional storage above Bear Lake under certain conditions.


Unlike many interstate compacts, Article XIV of the Bear River Compact requires the Commission to undertake a public review of the Compact every twenty years to see if changes are needed.  In 1997, the Commission undertook a 20 year review of the Compact.  After compiling written and oral comments, it found that there was no need to amend the Compact at that time but created a Water Quality Committee and added public involvement to the function of the existing Records Committee.


In its April 2017 meeting, the Commission formally initiated the present 20 year review.  The Commission encourages members of the public to attend the November 2, 2017 public hearing.  Our Engineer-Manager will present background on the Bear River and the Compact and answer questions.  After the presentation, the Commission will take public comment.




Friday, 06 October 2017 10:05

International Coastal Cleanup Success

FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake participated in Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, September 16. Thanks to a sponsorship from Autoliv and a dumpster donation from Budget Dumpster, FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake was able to remove 1,854 lbs. of trash and debris from the sensitive ecosystem around Lee Creek. 66 volunteers logged 198 hours. Special thanks to our partnering organizations: Autoliv, Budget Dumpster, Compass Minerals, Great Salt Lake Audubon, and The Nature Conservancy. 

Every year, International Coastal Cleanup Day brings together millions of volunteers all over the world to remove litter from coastlines, collecting everything from cigarette butts and plastic bottle caps to drinking straws and grocery bags. 

To read more from Budget Dumpster click here.


Click the following link to the RDCC website for comments that were submitted on the proposed Class V permit request by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, and the Utah Geological Survey office in the Department of Natural Resources for the latest on the Promontory Point Landfill.  Click Here

Aerial photograph courtesy of Charles Uibel. 


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Why We Care

  • "This was by far the most exciting and effective wave excursion I ever made this side of the Rocky Mountains; and when at its close I was heaved ashore among the sunny grasses and flowers, I found myself a new creature indeed, and went bounding along the beach with blood all aglow, reinforced by the best salts of the mountains, and ready for any race."

    - John Muir describing a swim in Great Salt Lake