Fall 2013: Water Resource Pressures and Climate Change Must Be Considered Even If We Can Narrow the Differences on a Proposed Expansion on the Lake

9/7/13- current lake level 4194.8’

There is no question that expansion of minerals extraction on the Lake poses a threat to the Lake ecology and functional use for everyone, especially in its current low level state. As with all resources, prudent and responsible management is required to sustain that resource for the benefit of all concerned. As sailors, our first concern is how deep is the water.

-Jerry Harwood, Rear Commodore, Great Salt Lake Yacht Club

The summer of 2013 was brutal. Salt Lake City broke the mold when temperatures reached 95 degrees or higher on 52 days. As the West continues to experience widespread impacts from another perennial drought, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made history by announcing that it would be cutting water releases from Glen Canyon Dam. The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared all 29 counties in Utah to be either “at risk or a disaster area. And since May 1st, the average elevation of Great Salt Lake hovered in a narrow range between 4196’ – 4194.8’ . A range that is characterized in the Great Salt Lake Level Matrix developed by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands as a transition zone. A zone where boating, brine shrimp harvesting, salinity exchange between Gunnison Bay (North Arm) and Gilbert Bay (South Arm), and bird island habitats – among other attributes of the Lake - begin to experience impacts.

These conditions set the stage for a series of water hearings that Governor Herbert scheduled this summer around the State to gauge public opinion on the use, development, and conservation of water in Utah. In theory, the hearings would inform the administrative and legislative development of policies and practices that would curtail our gluttonous water habits. An Executive Summary hasn’t been released yet, but a Water Summit is scheduled for late October. In Lake terms, with increased water demands and decreased snowpack, FRIENDS is concerned that Lake levels will trend downward permanently. In fact, experts have discussed lowering what is referred to as “average” Lake level (currently 4,200’) to reflect this trend. Let’s hope that the consensus of expression that came from this endeavor reflects a serious concern about the role climate change is playing on our landscape, in the hydrosphere and the Great Salt Lake watershed.

But what does any of this have to do with a revised expansion proposal from Great Salt Lake Minerals Corporation? And how is it relevant to Great Salt Lake as a Public Trust that belongs to all of us?

Great Salt Lake Minerals Corporation is a subsidiary of Compass Minerals International located in Overland, Kansas. It is one of 6 mineral extractive industries operating on Great Salt Lake. It is North America’s largest producer of potassium sulfate - a commercial fertilizer. The company currently operates 45,000 acres of solar evaporation ponds on the Lake. The ponds are divided almost equally between Bear River Bay in the northeast corner of the Lake, and Clyman Bay to the west in Gunnison Bay (the North Arm).

The process for extracting potassium sulfate begins in the North Arm where salinity levels are near saturation (approximately 26%). Lake water is pumped into a series of evaporation ponds where it undergoes preliminary evaporation during which selected salts drop out and remain in the Clyman Bay ponds. The rest of the brine is pumped across the Lake in the Behren’s Trench to the Bear River Bay facilities on the east side where two years later, potassium sulfate is harvested and shipped to market. GSLM processes about 6 million tons of salt per year. Excess salts that are not salable (approximately 4.5 million tons) are flushed back into the southern portion of Bear River Bay and make their way into the open waters of Great Salt Lake.

On July 9, 2013, Great Salt Lake Minerals (GSLM) submitted an amended permit application with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for a revised expansion proposal. The company is hoping to expand the footprint of its existing evaporation pond complex in Great Salt Lake so that it can increase the production and its global market share of potassium sulfate. Because this expansion involves impacts to waters of the U.S. (that’s Great Salt Lake) and wetlands, under the Clean Water Act, a 404 permit is required by the Corps. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is also required.

The good news about the 2013 expansion plan is that Great Salt Lake Minerals has worked in earnest with the conservation community to modify an earlier 2009 proposal. This modification is a testament to the company’s willingness to sit down and address some of our major concerns with the expansion. And although this proposal suggests significant reductions in the scale of the expansion and additional water needs, the Lake isn’t out of the woods yet, For an ecosystem that is already under stress and relies on precipitation, instream flows and water remaining within the system questions about the Lake’s ecology, salt balance, hydrology, wildlife habitats, water quality and recreational use still remain.

But let’s compare the two expansion plans so you can understand what has changed and what the potential impacts to the system are. And remember, GSLM is one of 6 existing mineral operations on the Lake. And currently, the only one of the 6 whose expansion goals has been announced.

In the original 2009 proposal, the company wanted to expand its operations by 91,000 acres - 8,000 of those acres in Bear River Bay which is designated an Important Bird Area by National Audubon Society because of its unique habitat value and high bird use. In conjunction with more dikes and evaporation ponds that would cover the surface of the Lake, and can influence surface evaporation, the project would consume an additional 353,000 acre feet of Lake water annually. This is above the 150,000 acre feet of Lake water the company currently uses.

A three-phased approach would have been implemented to accomplish the expansion. First, production facilities near Bear River Bay would be upgraded. Second, the exterior walls of dikes of the existing footprint would be sealed to improve efficiency by 60 percent. And third, the actual physical expansion of 91,000 acres between both sides of the Lake would occur all at once.

Now things look quite different. The 91,000 acres has been reduced to 37,497. This was achieved in part by the acquisition of a SITLA (School Institutional Trust Lands Act) lease parcel of 24,000 acres consisting mostly of uplands (approximately 15,000 acres). No additional development in Bear River Bay will occur. And the company will not request a water right for an additional 353,000 acre feet of Lake water. Salts that were sequestered in the Clyman Bay ponds will be moved back into the Lake using a progressive reclamation approach. And if approved by the Corps, the physical expansion of the company’s footprint would occur in three 8-10 year phases based on monitoring, data collection, and evaluation through an adaptive management approach. The public will have an opportunity to comment at each increment of the process to help determine whether the next phase of expansion can go forward.

This is all very positive. These changes reflect GSLM’s goal to minimize impacts to the Lake but only because FRIENDS and other partners in the Coalition to Keep the Lake Great objected strongly to the original proposal. So why do we still have concerns if the proposed expansion is now smaller and the additional water right is not needed?

As we all know, Great Salt Lake is a Public Trust resource that belongs to the people of Utah. The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands has jurisdictional responsibility to manage our Public Trust sustainably and in perpetuity for future generations. Since 2009 when GSLM first proposed its expansion, we have gained tremendous insight about the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem and the relationship between Lake levels and ecosystem services thanks to the benefit of some additional tools at our disposal.

These tools include two reports generated by Governor Herbert’s Great Salt Lake Advisory Council in 2012. The first entitled Economic Significance of the Great Salt Lake to the State of Utah tells us that the Lake contributes $1.3B annually to the economy of Utah and provides over 7,700 jobs. The second report -The Definition and Assessment of Great Salt Lake Health, evaluated various ecological targets that comprise the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem to determine their particular state of “health or viability.” Many of those targets face stresses which the study ranked high to very high. One of the key contributors to those stresses is reduced Lake levels that cause a variety of impacts to the system such as changes in salinity, increased vulnerability to island nesting birds, the proliferation of phragmites, and stress to the brine shrimp population in Gilbert Bay.

But probably the most instructive tool is the Great Salt Lake Level Matrix, which was born out of the most recent revision process of the Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan (GSLCMP). It’s the Lake’s Rosetta Stone that provides a schematic perspective on volumes of water in the Lake, how that translates into a range of Lake elevations, and in turn, how physical features, ecological targets and ecosystem services are impacted. The Matrix classifies a low Lake level as 4,188’ – 4,197’. This brings us back to GSLM’s proposal, mineral extraction in general and existing consumptive water rights on the Lake.

It’s important to remember that Great Salt Lake does not have a water appropriation or water right for its own beneficial use. As an ecosystem that is both hemispherically important to millions of migratory birds and brings in billions of dollars each year to the economy of Utah, this is a problem. At our 2010 Great Salt Lake Issues Forum we talked about keeping the Lake wet. One strategy to achieve this would be to establish a conservation pool for the system. In order to sustain the array of uses and ecological targets for a viable system, all consumptive water right withdrawals would be curtailed at a specific Lake level. New proposals for Lake uses would be tabled and existing water uses would be significantly scaled down until Lake levels go back up. Reservoirs use this same principle.

According to the Matrix, at an elevation of 4,194’ there are 10.2 million acre feet of water in the Lake. At 4,193’ there are only 9.6 million acre feet – a 600,000 acre feet difference. The revised GSLCMP indicates that there are 334,845 acre feet of perfected water rights held by mineral companies on the Lake, and approved but undeveloped rights of over 300,000 acre feet. If the Lake elevation was at 4,194’ and all of the perfected and approved water rights were consumed, the elevation of the Lake would drop a full foot to 4,193’. Flows between the North and South Arm would cease. And Gunnison Island – an American White Pelican rookery - among other islands where birds are protected by surrounding water would become accessible by land for predators and human disturbance. It’s important to note that although GSLM has withdrawn its application for an additional 353,000 acre feet of water, by sealing its dikes to increase efficiency, the net consumption of water by the company at low Lake levels will increase over time as will the likelihood that at levels below 4,195’ resources will be impacted.

In our comments to the Corps on the 2013 expansion proposal, FRIENDS and Coalition members stated that if the proposal is approved, then brine extraction by Great Salt Lake Minerals should cease when the Lake level is at 4,194’. Which in fact should be the case for all water consumption of our Lake. Remember the conservation pool idea.

But this is just one example of water resource pressures that threaten the future of Great Salt Lake. While it is becoming obvious to many of us that we need to stop withdrawing water from the Lake at low Lake levels to avoid a tragedy of the commons, it continues to be a political nonstarter. FRIENDS believes there is no other choice. We must work to achieve solidarity with Lake users and upstream users to preserve and protect our Public Trust for future generations. In the words of Hunter S. Thompson ,“When it comes to things like this, you don’t fool around.”

In saline,

Lynn

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Why We Care

  • Somewhere there should be a place for artists and tourists—if no one else is interested—to watch the gulls wheel into a flaming sunset and to ripple their hands in the smooth brine.

    George Dibble, "Deserted Site Remains Tourist Artist Mecca," Salt Lake Tribune, 1961

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