January 03, 2024

Great Salt Lake's Future is Our Future. We Need to Strive for Ecosystem Stability.

We will pay more for water regardless of what we do, but how much we will pay

will depend on our ability to act now. Will we pay a little more now to save Great Salt Lake

 or a lot more later if we don’t?

Nathan Bracken Esq., Smith Hartvigsen

On October 30th, I had the opportunity to present at the 2023 Utah Water Law Conference. The theme of the conference was Adapting to Today’s Challenges. It was no surprise that Great Salt Lake fit perfectly into this forum since the fate of this ecologically and economically significant ecosystem continues to present a serious challenge for all of us to address. Sharing the stage with Nathan Bracken, Esq., Smith Hartvigsen, we were invited to focus on the topic: Saving Great Salt Lake: A Look at the Bigger Picture: What is Working? What Isn’t? What Are the Possible Solutions?

Our contribution was part of a Great Salt Lake tryptic. We were sandwiched in between Joel Ferry, Executive Director of the Utah Division of Natural Resources, who focused on Utah Water Legislation—Recent Changes: Adapting to Today’s Challenges: Looking to the Future, and Brian Steed, GSL Commissioner, who emphasized the Challenges and Opportunities for Preserving the Great Salt Lake.

When I think about the theme, Adapting to Today’s Challenges, it’s fair to say that our current attempts to avert a catastrophic collapse of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem aren’t working fast enough. Time is clearly of the essence if we hope to meet our moral, ethical, and legal responsibility to preserve and protect this Public Trust resource in perpetuity. But it’s also fair to say that planning for the Lake has never been done at this scale. Historically, management of this sovereign land by the Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (DFFSL) has been confined to the meander line—an elevation of the Lake at the time of statehood ~4,208’ asl. As such, the Lake has traditionally been perceived as an isolated and finite province of reality lying at the bottom of the 36,000 sq. mi. Great Salt Lake Watershed Basin. But, mineral industry withdrawals aside, you can’t manage the Lake’s elevation from within the confines of the Lake—you have to manage it as a watershed because it’s the upstream water practices and population growth that have the largest impacts on inflows to the Lake. It’s not an excuse, just a fact!

Thanks to the insights from the February 24, 2016 white paper, Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front, by Wayne Wurtsbaugh et. al, we know that consumptive uses since statehood have reduced the average natural elevation of the Lake by 11’, decreased its volume by 48%, increased its salinity, and exposed approximately 50% of the lakebed. And thanks to the initiative of the GSL Strike Team’s February 8, 2023 Great Salt Lake Policy Assessment; A synthesized resource document for the 2023 General Legislative Session, setting a Lake elevation range goal is the Strike Team’s recommended way forward in order to “focus on inflows that both fill and maintain targeted elevation ranges.” Amen!

As we grapple with a millennium drought, super charged by climate change, the “collective we” have finally realized that things are no longer the way they used to be. And although the Lake has historically been an afterthought in the bottom of the watershed basin, we simply cannot continue to be myopic about this extremely complex and unique saline ecosystem. The fact of the matter is that Great Salt Lake’s future will determine what our future looks like. That’s why we need to bring water to the Lake now and secure a funding stream for that to continue.

We’ve learned from other saline ecosystems within the region and around the world that the desiccation of these systems comes at a price. A price with tremendous costs environmentally and economically that include alarming impacts to human health. In the 2019 report to the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council by ECONorthwest Potential Costs of a Drying Lake, an estimated $1.69 -2.17B annually would be required to address mitigation for dust, related health costs, a lost brine shrimp industry, lost mineral extraction, lost recreation, and lost ski days. Impacts to the populations of millions of migratory birds that rely on Great Salt Lake is unaccounted for in that report, but we know how significant that would be. If we hope to preserve and protect the Lake’s benefits and mitigate its negative impacts, we need to find no-regrets solutions that can be implemented now.

Yes, over the last two years an impressive amount of legislation has been generated with nearly $1B in funding support. For example, the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust (H.B. 410) with a $40M allocation established a unique framework to leverage partnerships to bring water to the Lake, in addition to funding proposals that would improve wetland habitats and water benefits that contribute to the Lake’s hydrology. Other measures like promoting water conservation through secondary water metering, optimizing agricultural practices, exercising water market strategies developed by the Water Banking Act, changing water use behavior and landscaping by our growing population, and increased coordination and engagement between state, local and federal entities are important actions that must be taken by the second most arid state in the nation.  

As well, H.B. 491—Great Salt Lake Commissioner Act/Executive Office Appointment recognized the importance of “going beyond the meander” of the Lake. As the former Executive Director of the Dept. of Natural Resources, Director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute of Land, Water, and Air at USU, and a representative of the GSL Strike Team, Brian Steed is a perfect fit because he knows the people, the politics, and the Lake. As for “below the meander,” H.B. 513—Great Salt Lake Amendments provides timely authority for DFFSL to make critical decisions about new leases and royalty agreements for the extraction of rare earth minerals such as lithium, in order to ensure that the biota and chemistry of the Lake isn’t negatively impacted by those industries.  

Since 2022, Utah State University’s Center for Water Efficient Landscaping and the Utah Division of Water Resources (DWRe) have been working collaboratively to implement Utah Growing Water Smart and develop a Utah-focused curriculum for workshops, including case studies demonstrating methods for reaching community water efficiency goals. Participation by municipalities and their personnel infrastructure has been outstanding. Awesome! But it’s no surprise that some of these efforts are getting better traction with more meaningful results than others. For example, funding for agricultural optimization has been extremely generous, however the return on investment is unclear because it’s been difficult to track how much water has been conserved or “saved” or if it’s even getting to the Lake? A gap analysis exists when it comes to accounting for the difference between diversion and depletion. Although H.B. 277—Water Conservation and Augmentation includes incentives for “saved” water practices, there’s a desire for greater transparency of water measurement data to enhance management and distribution to support research and planning. We’ve got to do a better job with this opportunity.

So what’s working with our commitment to “keeping the wheels on the wagon” for Great Salt Lake? And what’s not?

On November 15th, DWRe presented a draft Work Plan for the first ever Great Salt Lake Basin Integrated Plan (GSLBIP) to the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee. The goal of the GSLBIP is to “Ensure a resilient water supply for GSL and all water uses, including people and the environment, throughout the watershed.” This plan is breaking the sound barrier for the Lake by going “beyond the meander” to integrate Great Salt Lake into its watershed. The GSLBIP is an outcome of two factors: H.B. 429—Great Salt Lake Amendments/Integrated Water Assessment passed during the 2022 Utah legislative session, and a WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Since the objectives of both studies is to improve our understanding about water supply and demand in the GSL Basin, the two were merged to create the GSLBIP.

As stated in the GSLBIP, “An integrated water assessment is a means to understanding problems and challenges and evaluating options that enable informed decisions. The assessment is a planning process that holistically looks at the planning and management of the entire water cycle and considers it as a single and connected system.” As important, the language of H.B. 429 states, “The integrated water assessment shall include a water budget for the Great Salt Lake and the Great Salt Lake's associated wetlands, including water flows needed to maintain different lake levels under different scenarios, taking into consideration water quality, ecological needs, economic benefits, and public health benefits of the Great Salt Lake.”

Implementation of the GSLBIP will require the best data to drive the best policies and a belief in the concept that the plan is worthy of implementation. This can only be achieved through a wide scope of engagement of interests and partners within the watershed basin including our neighbors in Idaho and Wyoming. The good news is that we have them and an impressive gene pool of resources who are committed to seeing this through. The GSLBIP draft Work Plan is now available for public review through January 8, 2024 on our website: fogsl.org or at https://water.utah.gov/gsl-basin-integrated-plan. A virtual open house is scheduled 6:00-8:00 pm December 7th https://youtube.com/live/bj1ZXpZpNl. It’s up to all of us to contribute to this opportunity for the Lake. Completion of the GSLBIP Action Plan is scheduled for November 2026.

As we rethink the importance of planning and managing “beyond the meander,” let’s also rethink the foolishness of supporting projects like the Bear River development. Public proclamations of support for the Lake aside, if key State legislators are indeed cutting secret deals to purchase land for dam sites on the Bear, we have much bigger problems than we realize. We simply cannot make progress with our attempts to move forward with protecting the Lake if we’re anchored to this type of antiquated boondoggle of the past.


In saline and solidarity,