March 02, 2017

Winter 2016: Great Salt Lake – A Body of Work that Must be Included in our Vision for Utah’s Water Future

Executive Director’s Message – Winter 2017

Great Salt Lake – A Body of Work that Must be Included in our Vision for Utah’s Water Future

“Show up. Dive in. Stay at it!”

-The 44th President of the United States - Barack Obama in his final address to the American people –January 10, 2017.

Nice snow. Nice rain too. As of February 1, 2017, snowpack in most of the 15 watershed basins around the state has exceeded what would normally constitute early April peak accumulations. According to the Utah Water Supply Outlook Report that’s published each month by the National Weather and Climate Center, the succession of snowstorms from Christmas through early January translated into these impressive results. At that time, the snowpack was ranging from approximately125% to 160% of normal. Currently, many of these watersheds are running “between 160% - 220% of normal - an increase of 25% - 65% over what was already a good situation.” When compared with last year, conditions look promising for soil moisture levels, reservoir storage and stream-flow. However, based on the status quo, if this trend continues it’s likely that spring runoff conditions could be dicey.

The National Weather and Climate Center is part of the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Using data generated by SNOTEL (Snow Telemetry), the reports provide timely updates on snow and precipitation levels around the state so that all of us can have a sense of how the second most arid state in the nation is doing as far as water that’s falling from the sky.

But what’s disappointing about the report is that Great Salt Lake is not accounted for in this important picture. In fact, in the maps of Statewide Precipitation, and Statewide Snow Water Equivalent our Lake isn’t even labeled on the landscape. For a terminal lake that’s located at the bottom of a 22, 000 sq. mi hydrologic drainage basin and relies heavily on precipitation and inflows from upstream water sources – the Bear, Weber/Ogden and Jordan Rivers, surely it’s an oversight that nothing is mentioned about it in the context of Utah’s water picture. This doesn’t bode well for a system that generates $1.3B annually for the state and regional economies. And it doesn’t bode well for this unique hemispheric oasis for resident populations of wildlife and for millions of migratory birds that rely on its diversity of habitats and protein rich food sources for resting, staging and nesting.

It’s common knowledge that in 2016, Great Salt Lake hit record low lake elevations. This is because climate change also known as the climate regime continues to create drought cycles and higher temperatures that hasten snowpack meltdown, changes snow to rain and increases evaporation. Exacerbated by upstream diversions that prevent critical inflows into the system, as the Lake’s surface area begins to shrink the lakebed is exposed to winds that create dust events. This dust contributes to already problematic air quality conditions along the Wasatch Front. That’s why in the revision of the September 2016 Draft of the Governor’s 50 -Year State Water Strategy (draft strategy) that’s currently underway - it’s imperative that responsible recommendations that address Great Salt Lake’s water future are incorporated.

Draft strategy? What draft strategy?

With an eye on the projected doubling of Utah’s population by 2060 and how to reconcile this with managing the state’s water resources, in 2013 Governor Herbert initiated a 50-Year State Water Strategy. The strategy is supposed to “define priorities, inform water policy, and chart a path to maintaining and constructing needed infrastructure without breaking the bank or drying up our streams.” And it’s supposed to include “extensive public input to guide the process.” Kudos to the Governor for providing us with continuing opportunities to reckon with Utah’s water future and to exercise our commitment to effectively plan for it.

Using momentum from former Governor Leavitt’s water conservation goal to reduce municipal and industrial (M&I) use by 25% by 2050, Herbert upped the ante to achieve the reduction by 2025. Right now, we’ve reached 18% and that’s commendable but we can’t stop at 2025. When you think about it, in-home water use constitutes only 4% of all the water we use. So if we continue to be judicious in our water conservation practices – and that should include industrial uses too - we should be able to provide water to twice as many people with our existing supplies and without developing new sources – climate change aside. Holding to this standard continues to make room for our natural systems that need protection and have a direct effect on our quality of life.

Just as education has changed our behavior about littering and wearing seatbelts, we’ve got to continue practicing good water conservation measures because we simply can’t afford to be profligate with this precious resource. If we’re going to be honest about Utah’s water future, we have to begin by shaking up the basic assumptions we have about our relationship with water and its utility, and perhaps even our assumptions about growth in the second driest state in the country.

Work on developing the 50-Year State Water Strategy began in the summer of 2013 with a series of 8 statewide scoping meetings. The “listening sessions” provided an opportunity for citizens to express their ideas about Utah’s water future and ways to address water challenges. The meetings were hosted by a task force of six people involved in Utah’s water world – two water conservancy districts, a former director of the Division of Water Resources, a former State Engineer, a representative from Farmland Reserve, Inc, and Trout Unlimited. Discussions included recreation and the environment, climate change, population growth, water law, water for agriculture, delivery and efficiency, competing interests, and funding water infrastructure. With the addition of online comments an impressive amount of input was gathered and summarized in a series of white papers presented to the Governor that fall. You can review the comments and hear recordings of the sessions by visiting

At the same time, a State Water Strategy Advisory Team representing a range of interests and expertise from around the state that included water conservancy districts, academics, conservationists, attorneys, planners, government agencies, politicos and FRIENDS was appointed by Governor Herbert.

The Advisory Team would work through an Envision Utah (EU) modeling process to “identify Utah’s choices related to water, create 5 water scenarios for the EU 2050 Your Utah Your Future visioning process scheduled for roll out in April 2015, participate in the process, and provide the Governor with a Draft 50-Year State Water Strategy on which he and other policymakers could build a vision and framework for water issues going forward.”

From 2013 - 2015+ under the direction of Envision Utah facilitators assisted by 3 co-chairs involved in the statewide listening sessions, the Advisory Team was “guided” through discussions intended to shape the water scenarios. Unfortunately, this facilitated exercise limited our ability to delve fully and more objectively into provocative and pithy aspects of the future of our water resources such as questioning baseline assumptions with a bias toward structural supply enhanced solutions. And it also limited the scope of the scenarios on offer for the public to consider as a water vision for the future. As a result, we weren’t able to address important matters such as-

  • Currency of data on projected water use
  • Water pricing and secondary metering – how much water can be saved indoors and outdoors?
  • Teasing out more of the fabric of what the prior appropriation doctrine consists of to make room for exercising the public welfare and increase incentives for conservation uses
  • Taking proactive steps to modernize Utah water law while improving transparency and opportunities for public involvement
  • Costly and controversial new infrastructure projects with significant environmental externalities
  • Impacts from climate change on flows from the Colorado River
  • Best practices in other states with water strategies, models and tools that are working
  • Critical policy decisions that lie ahead
  • & The future of Great Salt Lake

I could go on but the point is that none of these things were adequately discussed which created great frustration for many of us who are sincerely committed to the effort and hoping for a sea change in our usual water ethic. Alas.

Fast forward to September 13, 2016 when the Advisory Team was called back together after a hiatus of almost 20 months to review the September 2016 Draft of the Governor’s 50-Year State Water Strategy A draft strategy that would ONLY invite comments from the Advisory Team and who would ONLY have 3 weeks to provide them. It wasn’t pretty. The public protested as did many members of the Advisory Team. The deadline for comments was extended and the public was invited to participate. Fast forward to February 2017.

Although the work continues on revising the draft strategy the process has changed. The co-chairs have given us a long rein to “create a worthwhile outcome from this long undertaking and write the ending to this story as you see fit.” And we’ve taken this to heart. Without facilitation, we’ve self -selected to work in small groups that meet at different times and at different venues. As we focus on the 12 key policy questions that comprise the draft strategy, our discussions are more open, engaging and energetic as we address the task before us. Our collective goal is to produce a meaningful tool that’s durable and has integrity. Perhaps we can be the first step in a new era in water policy. We’ll have to see.

As Joanna Endter-Wada, Associate Professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, and Advisory Team cohort said as we were working on the draft revision, “We’re talking about the need to be nimble and adaptive, practical and proactive in our approach. And we need to evaluate the future of water planning and its relevance to land use planning and economic planning so that it’s cohesive and resilient in the scheme of sustainability thinking for Utah’s population and our precious natural systems that includes Great Salt Lake.

I’m inspired.

In saline,