“God, how I long to go out West again someday – to drive some blue highway in Nevada or Utah until there’s absolutely nothing around me, then stop the car, in the middle of the road, maybe, and get out and just stand there, where I can see the horizon in every direction, and smell the air, and feel the sun and listen to the silence of the desert. I have this idea that if I could do this, time might hold still for a second, and I would know, for just a moment, what it feels like to be here.”
-Tim Kreider, author of “We Learn Nothing” a collection of essays and cartoons.
Totally impulsive, on a sunny and freshly rain-washed morning, two-weeks into the annual Utah waterfowl hunt, my spouse and I went birding at Farmington Bay. Camouflage, hunters, boats, pick-ups, dogs, and decoys provided ample on the ground evidence that the hunt was in progress. It’s one of the many seasonal dances at the Lake that simply comes with the territory. And yet, even with this buzz of enthusiasm and recreation, the Lake was still “ours”. We spotted several species of grebes and ducks, American White Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Marsh Wrens, Canada Geese, Northern Harriers, Killdeer, Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, California Gulls, Dowitchers, and a solitary muskrat. Not bad for being impulsive.
Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area is a popular and accessible birding, bicycling, and seasonal hunting area along the eastern shore of Great Salt Lake. Just take the Farmington/Glover Lane exit on I-15 in Davis County. It’s one of eight Waterfowl Management Areas (WMA) located on and around the Lake that comprise nearly 90,000 acres of public conservation properties that belong to the people of Utah. You can drive or cycle around the dikes like we did, or visit the Great Salt Lake Nature Center – soon to become a state of the art visitor/education facility, and meander along the walking trail.
Managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), the function of these WMA’s is to maximize habitat values for a range of waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors during migration and nesting seasons. The Great Salt Lake, its wetlands, open water, shoreline, and island habitats is an important aquatic ecosystem; locally, in North America, and within the Western Hemisphere. “It’s an international hub that connects migratory bird flyways of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and their allies as they wing their way from one point of life to another.” That’s Don Paul, Chair of Utah Linking Communities. Linking Communities is a hemispheric partnership to protect range - wide migratory bird species and their habitats. The Lake provides critical habitat for over 260 species of birds – many of which are globally significant in their numbers and rely on the Lake for resting, staging and nesting.
The Lake is also one of the most important waterfowl breeding areas remaining in the U.S. with an annual waterfowl use that exceeds 3 million birds that includes 35 species. That’s about 30% of all waterfowl in the Pacific and Central Flyway. The Lake and these WMA’s provide them and us with a unique refuge of solitude and engagement. And that’s why we were here.
Waterfowling – a term I’ve learned in my work for the Lake – is a deep tradition in our Utah culture that has endured for over a century. Of course, native peoples who lived near the Lake before white men arrived took advantage of the seasonal bounties of waterbirds as well. Personal journals and archives from the 20 private duck clubs that are located along the fringes of the lakescape, not to mention the duck hunting airboaters, reveal a rich family tradition of hunting ducks, geese and swans at the Lake and nearby tributaries for generations. A tradition that’s consistent with a cultural dynamic throughout the West that appeals to the love of nature and place.
Waterfowlers have an innate understanding about the dynamics of the Lake, and are among the strongest advocates for its protection. A study was conducted in 2011 by Duffield, J., C. Neber, and D. Patterson (Bioeconomics, Inc.). – “Utah Waterfowl Hunting: 2011 Hunter Survey, Hunter Attitudes and Economic Benefits. The study showed that the estimated economic impact in the Salt Lake City area of waterfowl - hunting related expenditures generates $97M and 1,600 full time jobs. Dollar values are an important part of the picture. But dollar values are only one part of the picture. Great Salt Lake is who we are, where we are, and how we are in this place that is a part of all of us. And it matters. We’re such lucky ducks.
Not to be overlooked in this notable mix of wetland management areas that serve to fulfill our stewardship responsibility for this wildlife endowment of the Lake is the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Established in 1928, the refuge is approximately 74,000 acres and is owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Located off the Forest Street exit on I-15 in Brigham City, the refuge is a key contributor to this bird rich picture. It’s connected to Bear River Bay - designated an Important Bird Area by National Audubon.
“Of all the important aquatic bird environments on the Lake, the Bear River Bay is the sweetest spot for diversity and numbers of birds during long-term average Lake elevation periods.” Don Paul.
Long-term average Lake elevation periods is worth repeating because today, the current elevation of Great Salt Lake is 4,192.5’ - only 1.5’ above the 1963 record low of 4,191’. Water in the bays plays a huge part in the number of waterfowl that come through and stay at the Lake. According to Blair Stringham, Utah Waterfowl Coordinator with DWR, it’s not uncommon to see around 500,000 birds in the WMA’s in September. When the three bays (Bear River, Farmington and Gilbert Bay) have good water, it’s not unusual to have hundreds of thousands there too. Right now, in Bear River Bay there are probably 300,000 Green-winged Teal near Promontory. But when compared to the hunt last year at this time, the bird numbers are down. The low Lake level is likely a key factor.
At the Great Salt Lake Technical Team meeting last August, a presentation about the proposed Bear River Water Development Project was made by the Utah Division of Water Resources (DWRe) and consultants from Bowen Collins & Associates. The genesis of this project comes from the 1958 Bear River Compact amended in 1980 that allocates water from the Bear among Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Through the Bear River Development Act 1991 –DWRe is authorized to develop the surface waters of the Bear and its tributaries to the tune of 220,000 acre feet annually to address the projected water needs of Utah’s growing population by 2060.
The Bear River is the source of 60% of Great Salt Lake’s surface water inflows. A water development proposal of this magnitude would certainly impact the Lake and the range of ecosystem services it provides. We already know about the wildlife and the critical habitat needs that would be at stake but so would mineral extraction, the brine shrimp industry, and recreation and tourism that themselves contribute $1.3B annually, and 7,700 full time jobs to Utah’s economy.
The Bear River Water Development Project is extremely controversial for a variety of reasons. The rationale for building it is weak. It would be a huge burden on Utah taxpayers to construct. Impacts to the Lake’s ecosystem services aren’t even considered. And the modeling and projected water needs to justify the proposal are based on a 1990’s water picture that doesn’t reflect our changing climate or drought cycles.
A Legislative Audit to determine the reliability of DWRe’s data and assess the accuracy of its projections of water demand and supply was released in May 2015. The audit lists a passel of things that need to be addressed to provide a more accurate picture of Utah’s water supply and needs. It also indicates that any shortfall in the water supply by 2060 could be filled from current sources with agricultural water conversions and more efficient water use. The audit is available at: http://fogsl.org/advocacy
So here we are at the Lake watching some hunters unloading their boat after being out on the water since before dawn. I asked them how they did. Along with a tired smile, one of the hunters said, “It was good. We got two cinnamon teals and a chance to catch up.”
Savor it. Recognize it. Talk about it. Protect it.
What you can do: Visit www.fogsl.org and visit Great Salt Lake