The Great Salt Lake Geopolitical Landscape, Water, and the Shapes of Things to Come
“Order! Order! Order!”
– Betty Boothroid, first female Speaker of the British House of Commons, 1992-2000
Has it been that long ago since the gavel-to-gavel 63rd Legislative Session occurred? It seems like only yesterday that the pre and post forty-five day marathon of strategizing, building partnerships, and exercising constant vigilance on behalf of Great Salt Lake was full bore. That being said, running that gauntlet generated some very promising outcomes that will provide good and constructive traction for our Lake work. No surprise there were, of course, disappointments and we will need to invest more time and more effective ways in order to succeed in the future. And unfortunately, there were also frank reminders that threats to the future of this hemispherically important ecosystem are always out there and require perseverance, vigilance, and us to protect Great Salt Lake’s future.
So what’s the takeaway from the session and how are complementary efforts to these legislative actions being effectively integrated to address the sustainability of the Lake?
Thanks to important research conducted by Wayne Wurtsbaugh et al. 2016 USU Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front, we know that since statehood—123 years ago—the elevation of Great Salt Lake has dropped 11 ft. Human impacts and upstream diversions of 871 million gallons annually from streams that feed the Lake, effectively reduced net river inflows to the Lake by 39%, dropping the volume of Great Salt Lake by nearly half.
We know from other saline systems globally and even those in our own regional backyard, that the dire consequences of a drying lake are far-reaching and costly to global wildlife species, human health, our economic future, and our quality of life. The sobering reality is that the Lake is in a state of decline. This has been the catalyst for timely media coverage, intense discussions among a variety of interests, integrated initiatives spawned from the July 2017 Recommended State Water Strategy, and legislation intended to raise awareness about the necessity of including Great Salt Lake in the consideration of Utah’s water future.
HCR10—Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake sponsored by Rep. Tim Hawkes and Sen. Scott Sandall is one of those positive deliverables. A concurrent resolution is one that includes the governor’s consent, and in this case received unanimous support from both houses. It’s a positive deliverable because it acknowledges that there’s a real problem which needs to be addressed. And to do that requires an effective policy solution. The resolution
recognizes the important range of values the Lake contributes to the State and how water is integral to sustaining those values. “This concurrent resolution recognizes the critical importance of continued water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands and the need for solutions to address declining water levels while appropriately balancing economic, social, and environmental needs.” The resolution also includes an expectation from this acknowledgement that states, “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Legislature and the Governor encourage the Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality through their relevant divisions, along with the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, to expeditiously, jointly, and collaboratively engage with a wide-range of stakeholders to develop recommendations for policy and other solutions to ensure adequate water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.” By November 30, 2020, the Legislature and the Governor will expect to know the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the work that DEQ, DNR, and the GSL Advisory Council identify to address this problem.
This is really cool!
Part of ensuring adequate water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands comes from water conservation. Conserving water in a dry state like Utah should be second nature to all of us. However, as evidenced in the research by Wurtsbaugh et al, we’ve got to shift the paradigm BIG TIME. And even though nearly 20 years ago, Governor Michael Leavitt set a statewide water conservation goal of 25% by 2025, in 2015 our daily water per capita use was an embarrassingly high 244 gallons, about twice as much as Tucson and other southwestern cities.
We know that climate change is a given. If we acknowledge the true cost of water, incorporate improved technologies to increase efficiency in water use, educate to change behaviors, and make sure that the water we conserve is also available for our natural systems, we can avoid the perceived need to develop expensive “new” water infrastructure. So there’s lots of room to move.
With these basic tenets in mind, SB52—Secondary Water Requirement sponsored by Sen. Jacob L. Anderegg and Rep. Tim Hawkes was an attempt to break the water conservation sound barrier by legislatively addressing pressurized secondary water metering. Secondary water is untreated pressurized water that is delivered to individual property owners for irrigation of lawns and gardens.
The Division of Water Resources has determined that Utahns use about 115,000 acre-ft./year of secondary water. (One acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons, or enough
water to cover a football field about one foot deep). This volume of secondary water use is comparable to about half of the proposed Bear River development diversion for Utah. Clearly, this is an area of water use that requires more scrutiny and improved efficiency.
A terrific example of how improvements in equipment design and related technology in secondary water metering have increased water conservation can be found in the work that the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District initiated in 2009. There’s a great write up in their 2018 Winter Newsletter, Saving Water through Secondary Water Metering, by Darren Hess, Assistant General Manager for the District. Do take a look. Although the costs are significant, especially when retrofitting existing secondary connections with meters, the return on investment speaks volumes. And the District is committed to continuing to install meters to increase water efficiency, promote water conservation, and foster better stewardship of secondary water users. And that’s a good thing.
Originally, SB52 was going to mandate the metering of all secondary untreated pressurized water systems by 2030. Low interest loans, grants, and some exemptions for smaller water districts would help with the steep costs involved, but it was still quite a heavy lift for many. And since the goal of this effort was to help realize the value secondary water metering has in meeting our water challenges for the future, and to keep this effort in tact during the session, the sponsors revised the language in the bill to increase buy-in.
The revised and passed SB52 “requires any secondary water provider that begins design work for new secondary water services to certain users—commercial, industrial, institutional, and residential—on or after April 1, 2020, to meter the use of the water.” A plan must be submitted no later than December 31, 2019 to the Division of Water Resources from which low interest loans will be made available. The plan must include the cost of full metering, how it will be financed, and the timeline. Annual reporting to the Division of Water Rights is required. And by November 2019, the Utah Water Task Force within the Department of Natural Resources must provide the results of a study of issues that surround secondary water metering in the state to the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee. It’s all good and necessary and moves us in the right direction to improve accountability, management, and conservation of water in Utah.
There’s also a grundle (I made up this word) of appropriations—some ongoing—that help season this productive mix of water works. Among them is a $500k appropriation for Great Salt Lake research on the impacts from changing water levels to ecosystem services and potential measures to address them.$500k (ongoing) to support the saga of phragmites removal around the Lake. It may surprise you to know that phragmites impacts
more than 26,000 acres within the marshes of Great Salt Lake and sucks up approximately 71,446 acre-ft of water (remember that football field) that would otherwise be going into the open water habitat of the system. And HB381—The Agricultural Water Optimization Bill (2018 session and ongoing) includes an appropriation of $3M to bring agricultural irrigation practices into the 21st century.
We owe big briny hugs to Rep. Casey Snider and Sen. Allen Christensen for their efforts to add the Willard Spur to our endowment of wildlife management areas around the Lake. HB265—Wildlife Management Area Amendments adds about 14,000 acres of unique wetlands and open water habitat of the Lake to the already existing 90,000+ acres of WMA’s that protect wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities on Great Salt Lake.
Get out your binoculars everybody.
And in the “Perseverance Furthers Department” thanks to the effective sponsorship of Sen. Jani Iwamoto, and Rep. Steward Barlow, and the tenacity of the Water Banking Working Group, SJR1—Joint Resolution Supporting the Study of Water Banking in Utah passed unanimously in both houses. SJR1 gives us a golden opportunity to explore the development of a helpful water tool that could effectively open up collaborative distribution of water for beneficial uses that would include natural systems like Great Salt Lake. You can read more about it in this issue.
We can all be encouraged by what appears to be a sea change in legislative activity on behalf of Great Salt Lake. And it’s exciting to think about forging new alliances to advance its protection and sustain its future. But we mustn’t lose sight of ongoing attempts to hinder that. So it’s no surprise that the parties associated with the Promontory Point Resources, LLC landfill proposal attempted to get legislation passed to favor their agenda. Their proposal, SB266—Waste Regulations Modifications would have allowed any Class I landfill that can currently only take in-state municipal waste to become a Class V landfill. Class V allows a landfill to take out-of-state (and more toxic) waste without approval by the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, and without a public process. The legislation would have also eliminated the needs assessment and the requirement that environmental benefits outweigh the costs. Fortunately, the bill did not succeed. Thank goddess! But it’s a sobering reminder that our collective work for the Lake is imperative and ongoing.
Remember, Great Salt Lake is a Public Trust that belongs to all of us. Thanks for being there.