April 19, 2023

Yes! It’s a Great Snow Year, But What are We Waiting for When We Know What We Need to Do? Let’s Pull Some Levers

It’s been a long time comin’

It’s goin’ to be a long time gone

And it appears to be a long

Appears to be a long

Appears to be a long

Time, yes, a long, long, long, long time

Before the dawn.

Long Time Gone by David Crosby

On Wednesday, February 1st, I attended the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee hearing to speak in support of SCR-6: Concurrent Resolution Regarding the Great Salt Lake Elevation Targets sponsored by Sen. Nate Blouin.

Blouin’s resolution offered a timely opportunity to translate promises into inflows by using a target elevation of 4,198’ above sea level for the Lake. An elevation that simply wasn’t pulled out of a hat, rather, it’s what many of us would characterize as where the “sweet spot” begins. The sweet spot (4,198’– 4,205’) is in the GSL Elevation Matrix, part of the 2013 GSL Comprehensive Management Plan that was developed by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The Division has the jurisdictional management responsibility to sustain GSL “in perpetuity” as a Public Trust resource for the people of Utah.

In the Matrix (you can see for yourself www.fogsl.org/about/map), 4,198’ is the elevation where almost all of the Lake’s ecosystem services and its ecological viability are in “green.” Green is definitely good and is categorized as “beneficial for the resource.” Beneficial for the resource because it’s here where salinity concentrations and Lake elevations work best for brine flies, brine shrimp, and microbialites, which constitute the food web for the millions of migratory birds that rely on the Lake. And it’s here where the Lake’s former islands become islands again; the volume of the Lake would be twice what it is today, and much of the currently exposed lakebed would be under water, helping to address the troubling dust issues we’re concerned about.

It’s here where boats can safely get out of the marinas, and economic assets like mineral extraction, brine shrimp harvesting, and recreation and tourism can thrive, contributing $1.32B to Utah’s annual GDP. And because the Lake fluctuates due to seasonal temperatures, variability in precipitation, evaporation, diversions and inflows, it’s here where those values can be sustained as long as water finds its way into the system.

And that’s where we all come in, right?

However, as you would expect, there are many people, including Utah legislators, who consider this goal to be too lofty…too far out of reach. I disagree; I could easily argue that it’s not lofty enough. When it comes to Great Salt Lake, we can’t be satisfied with short-term goals. It can’t be just a one-hit wonder. We have to look beyond the crisis that’s facing us today to where the Lake is healthy again, for the long-term, and for all of us. Setting 4,198’ as a target elevation gives us a way forward to devise and implement policies, incentives, and funding sources to return Great Salt Lake to optimal levels—optimal levels found in the sweet spot of 4,198’– 4,205’.

This is a way forward that the Great Salt Lake Strike Team recommends in its February 8, 2023 report, Great Salt Lake Policy Assessment, A synthesized resource document for the 2023 General Legislative Session. The Strike Team is a partnership that includes researchers from the University of Utah and Utah State University working together with the Utah Dept. of Natural Resources, Utah Dept. of Environmental Quality, and Utah Dept. of Agriculture and Food. In the report, “Preliminary analysis suggests (4,198’ – 4,205’) to maximize benefits across many factors. Meeting this goal requires policymakers to focus on inflows that both fill and maintain targeted elevation ranges.” The report also includes an extensive list of recommendations to help inform state actions that could occur in a relatively short period of time.

Unfortunately, but no surprise really, SCR-6 didn’t pass out of committee. Why? Perhaps as a freshman senator, sponsoring a Senate Concurrent Resolution that by declaration and demonstration would be recognized as a historic water commitment to Great Salt Lake by our growing population, Blouin could be comparable with Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in his X-15, and that would be unheard of. Perhaps, more groundwork needed to be laid in conversations with a broad legislative cohort about the merit of setting a target elevation before the bill was even drafted. Whatever the reason, certainly the persistent array of water concerns stemming from the megadrought have begun to finally sink in and the realization that we simply can’t continue with business as usual in our water practices has become more evident.

One of the committee members who claimed to be an advocate for the Lake and agreed in principle with the resolution, voted against it. His concern was that taking a position on an elevation was a “heavy lift” that could jeopardize other resources and economic values like farming. He also said that this winter’s snowpack gives lawmakers the opportunity to focus on long-term solutions that will have an impact, instead of simply pulling emergency levers. And although I totally understand the concerns that are being expressed, pulling emergency levers is exactly what we need to do for Great Salt Lake.

In November 2022, the Lake hit a new historic record low elevation of 4,188.5’; an elevation that negatively impacted almost all of its ecosystem services and raised salinity concentrations to a level that continues to threaten its ecological viability. As long as there is the perception that other resources and economic values like farming or concerns about reservoir storage deficits could be “jeopardized” by committing inflows to the Lake, we are just pressing the pause button on an urgent matter that requires immediate and long-term action, even in a good snow year.

It’s fair to say that since statehood 127 years ago, Great Salt Lake was a legislative afterthought until 2019, when Rep. Tim Hawkes sponsored HCR 10—Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake. HCR-10 was a catalyst for recognizing the Lake as a responsibility that needed attention and legislative support. A recognition that was amplified by Speaker of the House Rep. Brad Wilson who hosted two Great Salt Lake Summits and sponsored HB410 Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust that created a $40m water trust to leverage water partnerships within the GSL watershed to bring water to the Lake and improve habitat. To date, Utah’s legislature has appropriated nearly $1billion toward drought mitigation, agricultural optimization, secondary water metering, an integrated surface and groundwater assessment for the GSL watershed, water banking, water-wise landscaping, and a public education campaign through Utah Water Ways to help Utahns change their water behavior. But clearly, we need to work more effectively to find ways to improve communication, build partnerships, and recognize our collective future in this Great Salt Lake place.

Similar concerns prevented HB538 Water Usage Amendments sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens and Sen. Mike McKell from passing during the session. HB538 would prohibit the watering of lawn or turf in the Great Salt Lake basin during a restricted period known as the “shoulder season” between October and May. With some exceptions for trees and shrubs, cemeteries, golf courses, and agriculture, the goal was to account for the conserved water saved during this period and translate it into inflows to the Lake. Penalties would be imposed by the retail water supplier to discourage watering during the shoulder season to ensure accountability. However, questions about the duration of the shoulder season, impacts on reservoir storage deficits, and how much water would actually become available for the Lake were reasons that the bill failed. Hopefully, further study during interim will confirm the merits of exercising this approach to sending conserved water to Great Salt Lake. Briny fingers crossed!

Had Blouin’s SCR-6 carried the day through the 2023 session, it’s probable that a working group would have been established to begin developing a strategic plan to focus on inflows to fill and maintain the “sweet spot.” Reaping the benefit of the extra credit inflows from the spring runoff as a metric to work with, ideally a draft plan could have been integrated into the strategic plan of the newly appointed GSL Commissioner (HB491) and presented to the legislature by mid-November. But right now, everything is on hold.

But wait!!! On March 15th, Great Salt Lake received a revelation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A donation of 5,700 water shares, equivalent to over 20,000 acre-feet of water, roughly the size of the Little Dell Reservoir, will be donated to the Lake “in perpetuity.” The largest ever permanent donation to Great Salt Lake is a welcome example of believing in the Lake’s future. In his talk at the 28th Annual Wallace Stegner Center Symposium, The Future of Great Salt Lake (March 16-17th), Bishop W. Christopher Waddell referenced Brigham Young, who saw beneficial use of water as responsible use of water. Isn’t this exactly what bringing water to the Lake is all about?

Oftentimes when we look for solutions, we tend to seek “new and improved” answers. The irony here is that in many ways we have had the answers all along. During the last 10 years, the Great Salt Lake Elevation Matrix has told us exactly what we need to know about managing the Lake to achieve conditions that are beneficial to the resource. The commitment and the process to set the goal are every bit as important as the actual goal we set.

“This water year is a crucial opportunity to mitigate ongoing damage to the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. There is still time to turn this around, but we need the next steps to be decisive and well-coordinated.” – Dr. Patrick Belmont, Professor, Watershed Sciences/Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, USU.

What are we waiting for?

In saline and solidarity,