The Nature Conservancy • In this three-part series, we'll explore the complex story of a natural wonder whose fate will be decided on our watch.

Dogged Conservation and Optimism

Human health. Jobs. Global industries. International wildlife significance. For the Great Salt Lake, the key boxes all seem to be checked. Yet those working for the Lake's protection over the years have had to wage an uphill PR battle. 

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) made its first purchase at the Great Salt Lake in 1984, protecting wetland bird habitat threatened by development. Since then, TNC has worked with a suite of partners to protect more than 12,000 acres of wetlands and uplands around the Lake, including the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve which stretches 11 miles and 4,531 acres along the Lake’s eastern shore, and serves as a crucial buffer against fast-growing development in Davis County.  TNC also works with the Utah State University Botanical Center to run Lake-based outreach and education programs, which have reached more than 20,000 Utah students to date. Over the years, TNC has supported new science on Lake health and championed policy changes to enhance Lake protection and management. Ann Neville, TNC Utah’s Northern Mountains Regional Director, oversees current protection work at the Lake. “I think we’ve reached a time to truly celebrate the Lake,” says Neville. “For me, getting the right partners in the room, and seeing the traction we’re gaining is energizing.” In terms of conserving habitat around the Lake, TNC and many other entities have made real progress—sanctuaries around the Lake have also been established by Audubon, the State of Utah, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The Great Salt Lake has always been one of our top priorities,” says Dave Livermore, TNC’s Utah State Director. “For more than 35 years, many of us have been beating this drum, and trying to safeguard the most vulnerable elements of the system—and honestly, just trying to give the Lake a seat at the table.”

Another veteran Lake advocate, Lynn de Freitas, the Executive Director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake (FOGSL), is also cautiously optimistic today. FOGSL is dedicated to growing an appreciation of the Lake through education and advocacy programs, and De Freitas has spoken out about threats to the Lake for years—from pollution to diversion to development. “It’s a never-ending battle, but I feel we’re moving in a positive direction. If we act in a timely way with a collective will, we can avert horrific results for people, for wildlife and for the world.  Utah can still offer a success story.”

Building Consensus

Why is effectively protecting the Great Salt Lake such a tall order? It’s not just about the Lake’s public image. Part of the challenge, explains Laura Vernon, is the complexity of the Lake ecosystem itself and the way it’s managed by the State of Utah. Vernon is the Great Salt Lake Coordinator with Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Her position is relatively new, and an indicator that state officials are realizing the need for better management across the Lake’s many moving parts. “You have the bed of the Lake, the water flowing to the Lake and the water in the Lake, as well as some of the lands around the Lake all being overseen by different divisions and departments,” Vernon says. “There has not been one entity responsible for looking at the Lake watershed as a whole.”

Vernon, who’s been working on Lake issues for 10 years, is feeling a new optimism. “It’s shocking to me how little attention the Lake has gotten historically, but things have grown leaps and bounds, even over the last year.” 

She points to new, ongoing funding for the GSLAC, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council led by Don Leonard, which this past fall released a report highlighting 12 key strategies to keep water in the Lake.  The report’s recommendations range from changing Utah water law and creating new incentives for agricultural and municipal water conservation to new tools for the acquisition of water rights that could protect the Lake’s inflows.

“The report concluded that while each of the strategies will improve water management, a combination of key strategies is necessary to improve water delivery to Great Salt Lake,” says Leonard. “I’m pleased with the focus on the report and the attention it’s getting.  We are working to build consensus behind the strategies.”

Consensus, Vernon hopes, is what may finally lead to a turning point. “It’s been impressive to see such a range of different stakeholders uniting behind a cause. I remember going on a tour out to Stansbury Island in the middle of the Lake with TNC and other conservation groups as well as folks from the mineral extraction industry. And they were all saying the same thing. It was remarkable.”

Flows, Laws and Progress

Still, even with strange new bedfellows holding hands, reversing water level declines at the Great Salt Lake will be no small endeavor. The strategies outlined by GSLAC are up against a special kind of inertia. “Implementing the strategies would require changes in some policies, practices, laws and regulations,” notes Leonard, “many of which have been in place for a long time and are institutionalized.  Such changes require deliberation and mutual understanding.  An important next step is securing understanding by and support from agriculture interests.”

Historically, Utah ranks high on state water consumption lists. Residents themselves could choose to make easy choices that would help, from repairing leaky faucets and taking shorter showers, to not overwatering their lawns. A large percentage of Utah’s water use, however, goes to agriculture. Legal issues governing western water users and historic laws are complicated and sensitive with far-reaching impacts. And pressures are mounting from all sides. Just this summer, more than 99 percent of Utah fell into “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions, per the U.S. Drought Monitor. According to the Utah Geological Survey web site “Increasing per capita water use coupled with rapid population growth and projected reductions in both snowpack and streamflow due to changing climate is not sustainable.”  Water management is top of mind for Utah leaders.  But for many years, the Great Salt Lake has been an afterthought.  In fact, the State has never had a formally implemented policy to maintain Great Salt Lake water levels at any particular elevation range.

Despite the challenges, Representative Tim Hawkes, the Republican state legislator from northern Utah, is confident. In 2019, he led the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 10, which called on the State to support additional studies to understand the causes and impacts of the declining Lake levels. “I've never been more optimistic about the future of the Lake. HCR-10 has had remarkable staying power,” he says. “Now it feels like we’ve moved into more of a ‘research and testing’ phase. How do we better direct resources to answer critical scientific questions? How do we engage stakeholders in new and meaningful ways? How do we test drive solutions under existing legal authority on a small scale?”

In the most recent 2021 Legislative session, Hawkes successfully prompted Utah policy-makers to approve funding for two new Great Salt Lake projects: one is a study that will better quantify the contribution of groundwater to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands, while the other is an effort to support local governments that are interested in incorporating smart water planning into their land use planning processes. According to Hawkes: “I think it’s important for people to understand one critical fact: people can make a difference. Losing the Lake is not a foregone conclusion. Best available modeling suggests that, with some sensible and sustained effort, we can keep Lake elevations in a range where the Lake continues to support all its primary beneficial uses.”

Seeing Beyond Today

While Hawkes is convinced that the Lake’s impact on public health and the economy will motivate his fellow legislators, he’s also moved by the plight of the birds. “I remember one moment it hit home for me, the amount of life the Lake supports,” he says. “I took a trip to Promontory Point along the Union Pacific causeway in early autumn. From the moment we could see water south of the causeway to the moment we arrived on Promontory, the edge of the water was black with a thick band of countless birds. It went on for mile after mile. I've never seen so many at one time and in one place.”

It’s the type of epiphany that’s welcomed by Ella Sorensen, manager of the Edward L. and Charles L. Gillmor Audubon Sanctuary, a 3,597-acre preserve on the Lake’s South Shore. A chemist by training, Sorensen has spent decades studying the Great Salt Lake’s birds and writing about the Lake for the Salt Lake Tribune. When I ask her how to explain the Lake’s importance to someone on the street, she sighs. “It’s not effective to say things about Great Salt Lake. What works is to bring people out here.”

As Sorensen flicks mud from her boot tip, her soft, white hair lifts in the afternoon breeze. She’s just spent hours walking her daily route through the sanctuary’s sludgy marsh, which provides vital habitat for migratory shorebirds such as American avocets and snowy plovers. “I bring people out here who’ve lived in Utah their whole lives, but never understood the Lake until they came and saw the birds and the wetlands for themselves. It’s tremendously powerful.”

Perhaps that sheer Lake life force is part of what Terry Tempest Williams wanted us to contemplate when she wrote Refuge, 30 years ago. Her life story was inextricably linked to the Lake and the birds—and so is ours.  We share in nature’s bounty, and in its decline.

Thirty years ago, Williams described living in a “virtually uninhabited” area near the Great Salt Lake. Today over 60 percent of Utah's population (more than 2.5 million people) live within 20 miles of the Lake.  What will the next 30 years bring?  For people?  For the Great Salt Lake? For the birds?  That answer, according to Williams, hinges on our choices. “The eyes of the future are looking back at us,” she wrote, “and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”

Click here to read this series on The Nature Conservancy website.

Published in News and Events

KUER 90.1 | By Jon Reed

Published July 7, 2021 at 5:00 AM MDT

The Great Salt Lake is reaching its lowest level ever. That brings huge environmental costs, from worse air quality to habitat destruction for migratory birds.

It also affects some important industries in Utah’s economy. Businesses that rely on the Great Salt Lake — recreation, mineral extraction and harvesting brine shrimp eggs — bring roughly $1.3 billion to the state’s economy, according to a 2012 report.

Don Leonard, chairman of the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, said eggs from the lake’s brine shrimp are a crucial food source for the fish and shrimp eaten around the world. About 40% of the world’s brine shrimp eggs come from the lake but with lower water levels, the water gets saltier, which makes it harder for the shrimp to reproduce.

Leonard said less water also means egg harvesters are spending close to $1 million dredging the bottom of the lake in order to get their boats out.

“We need to be able to have our boats go out on the lake, harvest eggs and then bring our eggs back to shore,” he said. “You need so much water to float your boats, right? So as the water level goes down, we have to lower the bottom of the harbor down an equivalent amount.”

Those kinds of costs drive up the price of the eggs and make Utah business less competitive in an increasingly global market.

Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake Coordinator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the impacts to mining magnesium and other minerals also has ripple effects throughout the economy.

“If you pick up a pop can, if you sit on a stadium bench, all of these materials have elements of the Great Lake in them,” Vernon said.

Minerals from the lake are also used to make car parts, cell phones and fertilizer for crops around the country. Some of the companies that rely on the lake are the country’s largest or only suppliers of certain materials.

The total cost of further water loss is estimated to be around $2 billion a year and more than 6,500 jobs. That doesn't include additional expenses for better water management, protecting migratory bird species and mitigating invasive plant species.

“We've all been watching the lake level as it's gone down and this unanticipated drought has definitely expedited concern,” Vernon said. “It's giving us an opportunity to kind of adapt and maybe look a little more quickly to put some of the strategies in place that we have been talking about over the last couple of years.”

Vernon said the state is looking at 12 primary strategies for protecting the lake, including changes to state law that would promote water conservation, which it doesn’t currently do. Likely all of them will be needed to ensure the Great Salt Lake isn’t depleted altogether, she said.

Click here to read this article on the KUER 90.1 website.

Published in News and Events

“That’s not what they told us at the time,” he said. “Nope, I was never told that.” Rep. Lee Perry, Chief Sponsor of HJR 20—Joint Resolution Approving Class V Landfill for Promontory Point Resources, LLC during the 2016 Utah Legislative Session.

- 2/6/18 Standard Examiner, Box Elder lawmaker has mixed feelings about pushing Promontory landfill approval by Leia Larsen

On October 20, 2020, for the second time, Promontory Point Resources, LLC (PPR), a subsidiary of Allos Environmental of California, submitted a Class V permit application to the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control (Division). If approved by the Division and the Governor, a Class V permit would allow PPR to bring out-of-state industrial waste to its landfill facility on the SW tip of the Promontory Peninsula in Box Elder County. This location is completely unsuitable for a landfill because of the hydrogeologic connectivity between the landscape and Great Salt Lake that surrounds the peninsula on its three sides. Compelling evidence supports the fact that this particular area of the Lake is seismically active. And the landfill location would threaten a hemispherically significant ecosystem that supports millions of migratory birds, and contributes $1.32B, including 7,700 jobs, annually to Utah’s economy.

During 2017, the first time PPR applied and tried twice to show that another Class V permit was needed in the state, an independent review of PPR’s application and Needs Assessment concluded that the company failed to show that another Class V landfill was needed, especially given that we already have over 1,600 years’ worth of Class V storage. Well aware of PPR’s Class V pursuit, a wide range of Great Salt Lake stakeholders and FRIENDS hosted public outreach programs with the Division, raising questions and concerns about the practices of PPR and the prospect of a Class V landfill on the shores of Great Salt Lake. A white paper presented to the Division by the Great Salt Lake Institute, Great Salt Lake as an Ecologically Significant Natural Area, summarized research from scientific literature, the brine shrimp industry, mineral extraction industry, and ongoing research of all the major institutions of higher education in Utah to help guide decision-making regarding permitting of a Class V landfill operation in close proximity to the Lake. Even the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, which advises the Governor, the Dept. of Natural Resources, and the Dept. of Environmental Quality on the “sustainable use, protection, and development of Great Salt Lake” submitted a letter requesting “further studies to determine the full extent of risks and the adequacy of the measures designed to address them.” Having failed to show that another Class V landfill was needed, PPR withdrew its application in February 2018.

However, PPR’s failure to show that need prompted the company to try another approach: make an end run and lobby the Utah Legislature to change the law by removing the Needs Assessment for Class V permits. Fortunately, those attempts during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions failed, but the takeaway here is that PPR tried to skirt the existing laws it couldn’t satisfy by simply getting rid of them. So why is PPR reapplying?

Because out-of-state waste is where the money is.

In the 2020 Class V application, the Needs Assessment takes a completely different approach to the question of “need” than it did in 2017. This new—and theoretically improved—application focuses much more on out-ofstate markets. Using these new criteria, the assessment concludes that there is, in fact, such a need. In conversations that FRIENDS had with the Division about this critical difference, we encouraged the Division to not simply take the company’s word for it, but instead to conduct an independent review of the company’s conclusions. In letters that FRIENDS and other conservation organizations sent to the Division, we emphasized that without an independent assessment of underling premises contained in the latest Needs Assessment, the Division has no basis for concluding that the underlying facts and conclusions contained in that assessment are accurate. Given that, we would expect the Division to pursue the review in order to make an informed decision on this important matter.

A March 3, 2021 article California Dreamin’? written and researched by Eric Peterson and Jennifer Greenlee of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Box Elder News Journal, calls into question both the assumptions used in the assessment regarding the extent of the available California market, as well as some possible conflicts of interest among the relationships of the various parties involved in the PPR landfill. Given the ambitiousness of PPR’s proposed Class V operations plan, and the possible adverse consequences of getting it wrong, it is absolutely critical that the assumptions and conclusions contained in this latest Needs Assessment be verified. And although nowhere in the application does PPR indicate that it would consider out-of-state coal ash—a waste product from coal fired power plants that contains toxic substances like mercury, arsenic, and lead from throughout the United States—once a Class V permit is issued, a subsequent provisional request could be made to the Division to bring these wastes into the state. So due diligence NOW is imperative.

A little bit of historical perspective always helps:

Way back when in 2001, two thousand acres of land on the SW tip of the Promontory Peninsula were purchased by Promontory Point Land Resources, LLC to create a landfill. After a bewildering number of name and legal status changes, in 2004 the Division granted a Class I permit to Promontory Landfill, LLC allowing that new owner to take in-state municipal waste once certain conditions were approved by the Division. Those conditions included construction of the facility and installation of groundwater monitoring wells, a financial assurance bond to cover closure and postclosure costs, and contracts with local governments. Around 2016, having recently purchased the relatively unchanged property that came with the Class I permit (due to expire in August 2021), PPR secured $16.25M in bonding from the Utah Private Activity Bond Authority. Around this same time, PPR managed to persuade Representative Perry to sponsor legislative approval of PPR’s Class V plans (HJR 20), a necessary step for a Class V permit. With bond money burning a hole in their pockets, in 2017 PPR used those funds to construct the first phase of its landfill, but without letting the Division know it was doing that. The Division only learned that construction had begun through a news report, even though coordinating construction of a landfill with the Division is standard procedure. Details, details.

This pattern of begging forgiveness rather than asking permission was repeated when the company installed its three new monitoring wells without Division approval. In fact, the Division went on to suggest that the company conduct a “flow and transport model” to ensure PPR had adequately placed its wells to detect leaks. The company “disagreed,” refused to do the modeling, and insisted that the Division approve the wells it had already installed. Given that the purpose of the monitoring wells is for early detection of waste stream contaminants that leave the landfill and percolate into the surrounding landscape and the groundwater that flows to the Lake, this is where FRIENDS stepped in to challenge the Division’s approval of those wells without that modeling.

The issue is that the substrate of the landscape where PPR’s facility is located is fractured bedrock, and experts agree that strategic placement and depth of the monitoring wells under this circumstance must be informed by flow and transport modeling to maximize early detection of leaks. Compelling data exists to support evidence that regardless of how durable landfill liners are, they eventually will leak. And the placement of monitoring wells to detect leakage is critical to addressing the problem early on. Adding insult to injury, when a landfill is located next to a waterbody, the contamination to the environment is compounded exponentially. In this case, the Great Salt Lake ecosystem would be the recipient of these contaminants which would impact the unique ecological values of the system that affect the food web for birds and brine shrimp, as well as adjacent industrial mineral operations like Compass Minerals that produces organic potassium sulfate, a fertilizer for fruits and nuts. Bruce Anderson, president of Mineral Resources International, a family-owned company that harvests minerals from the Lake that are sold as human supplements to more than 50 countries stated, “We’re concerned about the unknown that is not adequately planned for, and that’s why I believe that site should have been considered a fatal flaw to begin with because of the inability to plan for and mitigate the huge risk in the event of a significant natural disaster.”

Which brings us to PPR with a newly constructed landfill that’s been empty for almost four years, and with over $16 million in bonds that have to be paid off. Why is it empty? Because there’s a tight municipal waste market; the landfill is located where it would take lots of truck trips and lots of miles to haul waste to its facility, and with all of that the company has failed to secure any municipal contracts. That math, along with mounting financial pressures, has put PPR in a position where it either obtains a Class V permit for the Promontory Point landfill, or the state is left with a very expensive hole in the ground.

As an aside, during the 2021 session, a commendable step toward justice was taken by Rep. Tim Hawkes who sponsored HB 399—Approval of Nonhazardous Solid or Hazardous Waste Facilities. The law requires that legislative approval of a nonhazardous solid or hazardous waste facility be automatically revoked if an application is withdrawn. Although the sweep of the law could not be retroactive to include PPR, it’s a step in the right direction for the future to prevent the legislature from providing a “blank check” for applications that lack merit. So much for hindsight, right?

Meanwhile, given that the Division has shown a pattern of simply endorsing whatever PPR wants to do, and has failed to require the company to take the steps necessary to show that this landfill will not substantially harm the Lake, there’s no reason to believe that the Division will act differently if it approves PPR for its Class V permit. As for PPR, we have very little faith that the company will police itself, be accountable and transparent in its practices, and regard the significance of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. With all of that, and because FRIENDS’ mission is to preserve and protect the Lake, we strongly oppose the company’s efforts to obtain this Class V permit. This landfill sits on the very shores of the Lake—which would be a scary prospect even if the landfill contained nothing but local waste. It’s unfathomable that PPR might actually make Promontory Peninsula the dumping ground of the West. I trust that you feel the same. And if you do, I hope you’ll join us in expressing your opposition to the Division about this permit.

In saline and spring,


“Unless people start caring and start acting, the Great Salt Lake will only be in increasing danger of, quite literally, drying up and blowing away.”

-Salt Lake Tribune Editorial, No Lake City (8/28/20).

We live along the shores of something GREAT – Great Salt Lake. This is still the case and should always be the case. Since statehood, the state of Utah has had a legal stewardship responsibility to manage the sovereign lands of Great Salt Lake in perpetuity as a Public Trust resource. It says so in Article XX, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution. This mandate requires the state to oversee effective management of this ecologically unique and economically significant saline system. However, it’s also a system that, in the peculiar language of Utah’s Prior Appropriation Water Law, is not considered a “beneficial use”. That means that any drop of water that sits in Great Salt Lake is considered wasted.

So what’s so special about a terminal lake that has no outflows? A lake that’s a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville, a once deep fresh water system about the size of Lake Michigan. That’s about 20,000 sq. mi. of landscape covering most of western Utah and parts of eastern Nevada and southern Idaho. A unique but somewhat peculiar system that lies at the bottom of a 21,000 sq.mi. hydrologic drainage basin with a growing population of over 2 million people. A system that has a salinity range from 6% - 27% which is between 2 to 7 times saltier than the ocean. Now a relatively shallow lakescape - 33 ft. at its deepest - that in recent history has fluctuated in size by hundreds of square miles and in elevation by 20 ft. depending upon precipitation and inflows. A lake that is often characterized as buggy, stinky, salty, and a dead sea.

“Great Salt Lake is unique among the great American lakes, arresting in its name, yet least known. Its name itself has an aura of the strange and the mysterious, but it resists those who would know it. Lake of paradoxes, in a country where water is life itself and land has little value without it, Great Salt Lake is an ironical joke of nature – water that is itself more desert than a desert.” The Great Salt Lake by Dale L. Morgan. 1947.

And why does this Public Trust resource require a commitment from the state of Utah to manage it in perpetuity?

Let’s take a closer look at the one and only Great Salt Lake. The namesake of Utah’s state capital, a rich and integral part of our cultural heritage, an underpinning that has shaped traditions, and an endless source of research, literature, visual art, and the natural beauty of this place we call home. The largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere and the 8th largest terminal lake in the world. Located in the second most arid state in the nation where only 1% of its total area is wetlands. 75% of those wetlands are located on and around Great Salt Lake. In addition to providing important habitat, wetlands control flooding, reduce erosion, and act as filters that improve water quality. Wetlands in Utah have declined from 1.2 million acres in the 1950’s to approximately 400,000 acres today. So we need to keep what we still have. Thanks to the report by Bioeconomics, Inc. January 2012. Economic Significance of the Great Salt Lake to the State of Utah. Prepared for the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council we have a broader understanding about the economic values this Public Trust resource provides.

The economic output of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem is $1.32 billion annually. That contribution to Utah’s G.D.P. comes from mineral extraction, brine shrimp harvesting (aquaculture), and recreation (waterfowl hunting, bird watching, boating, swimming/general recreation). Income from total labor is $375.1 million and total employment (full and part-time jobs) from those three sectors is 7,706. In addition, the Lake has a significant “net economic value” between $46.4 million to $98.8 million. These are dollars that would be spent if resource users such as waterfowl hunting, non-hunting recreational use, Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTWs), and industrial dischargers were charged the full market value or price of services received from the ecosystem.

There are also important passive use values that are derived from simply knowing that the Lake’s natural environment and populations exist in a viable condition. And that the resource will be available for future generations of wildlife and people. We also know that water in the Lake suppresses dust from an otherwise exposed lakebed, as well as enhancing our snowpack in the Wasatch with its “Lake Effect”.

" The Great Salt Lake is ornithologically the most impressive salt lake on the continent.” Dr. Joseph R. Jehl Jr.

The ecological values of this remarkable system are equally awesome. In addition to resident populations of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, snakes, fish and birds, we have an extraordinarily wide embrace of migratory birds that elevate the Lake to a global scale of importance. This is evidenced by 10 million migratory birds – about 3 times the current population of Utah- that rely on Great Salt Lake for food and habitat critical to the lifeblood and promise of their future. 338 species of birds representing noteworthy avian populations that includes 30% of the Pacific Flyway come here for resting, staging and nesting as they make their migratory journey through the Western Hemisphere. Here’s a sample of this impressive flock: Wilson’s Phalarope -340,000 - largest staging concentration in the world, American Avocet-250,000 – many times higher than any other wetland in the Pacific Flyway, Snowy Plover- nearly a quarter of the continental population, millions of the Eared Grebe population depend on GSL, American White Pelican-one of the top five breeding populations in North America, and more than 500 wintering Bald Eagles; one of the top ten winter populations in the lower 48 states come here too.

It should come as no surprise that feeding and housing these astonishing numbers also requires water. Without water, islands are no longer islands, submerged aquatic vegetation is no longer submerged, and microbialites aka “Great Salt Lake coral” are unable to fulfill an important role in the food web of the system. Microbialites are calcium carbonate structures formed by the hydrogeological connectivity between the landscape and the lakebed. They carpet most of the lakebed and serve as a food browse source for brine shrimp and are an integral part of the life cycle of brine flies. Both of these critters are vital food sources for birds because they are very high in protein. Brine flies also break down organic matter that would otherwise accumulate in and around the ecosystem.

Because of this impressive bird use all five bays of the Lake have been designated Important Bird Areas by the National Audubon Society. And in 1991, Great Salt Lake was designated a site of “Hemispheric Importance” within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. But even though the Lake provides this endowment of exceptional beneficial uses, water; its lifeblood - is not considered a beneficial use under Utah water law. This confounding disposition severely complicates the mandate that “We the People” have been given to sustain this truly remarkable place. Compounded by climate change, an average daily per person water consumption of 232 gallons (2015), and a growing population projected to reach 6 million people by 2060, these alarming conditions do not bode well for our Lake’s future. Oy!

A timely and insightful white paper Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front. Wayne Wurtsbaugh et al. February 2016 not only gives us a troubling glimpse of the past but serves as a warning about the future. The report found that since the pioneers arrived in 1847, water development and river diversions for consumptive water uses for municipal and industrial purposes, agricultural activities, reservoirs, and evapotranspiration have produced a persistent reduction of flows into Great Salt Lake by nearly 40%. This reduction has effectively dropped the Lake’s average elevation by 11’, shrinking it in size by almost 50%.

We’ve learned from other saline systems that significant water diversions not only impact ecosystem services but public health as well. Exposed lakebeds generate dust that contributes to air pollution. Billions of dollars are required to mitigate these impacts but many of them can never be fully realized. According to Craig Miller, Utah Division of Water Resources and contributor to the aforementioned white paper, “There are always big ups and downs but the long term trend is down. Based on historical observations, the “average” level of the Lake is said to be 4,200’ above sea level. But with all the modern-era water development upstream, the Lake currently hovers between 4,195’ and 4,196’ above sea level with normal weather.”

On November 16th at the Saltair Boat Harbor, the surface elevation of Great Salt Lake was 4,192.2’. This is 1.2’ above the 1963 record low of 4,191’.

In 2008, when FRIENDS co-hosted the Joint Conference of the 10th International Conference on Salt Lake Research and 2008 FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake Issues Forum 315 participants from 19 countries attended. The program title was Saline Systems Around the World: Unique Systems with Unique Values. Dr. Robert Jellison, limnologist who has done extensive research on Mono Lake, another hypersaline system, and a research associate with the Marine Science Institute, U of California, Santa Barbara, CA. was one of the plenary speakers. The title of his presentation was “The Conservation and Management of Salt Lakes: Past, Present, and Future.” Jellison noted that in the context of conserving these water bodies, agricultural diversions of fresh water in the last several decades has permanently changed these lakes for the worse, while at the same time their ecological importance to migrating and breeding birds has become widely recognized. As for their outlook going forward, he stated that “[t]he future of many saline lakes will be decided over the next several decades as the direct economic value of fresh water inflows are weighted against the less easily measured ecosystem goods and services provided by these unique ecosystems.” So too with Great Salt Lake.

It's imperative that we recognize water for Great Salt Lake as a beneficial use and incorporate measures to support its sustainability. Someone characterized this recognition as “Moving foundation blocks rather than having an earthquake.” Let’s work together to ensure that we have a return on our investment in this phenomenal Public Trust resource. Let’s keep the Lake GREAT. Afterall, Great Salt Lake is the gift that keeps on giving; just add water.

In saline and optimism,


November 23, 2020


The following resources have been made available by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.

Conservation Impacts Study

To inform future water resource planning decisions that may affect Great Salt Lake, the Conservation Impact Study examines the potential impacts of water conservation on water resource planning and develops an action plan of additional studies needed to assist policy makers in more completely understanding the role of conservation in future water resource planning. This evaluation focuses on four primary water providers in northern Utah: Bear River Water Conservancy District (WCD), Cache Water District, Jordan Valley WCD, and Weber Basin WCD. The Study finds that if additional water conservation efforts can significantly decrease water use, there is the potential to further delay, reduce the magnitude, or perhaps even eliminate the need for future large water development projects, such as the currently defined Bear River Development project.

Water Strategies for Great Salt Lake

Building upon the work completed in 2017 to compile potential strategies to address declining lake levels, GSLAC commission Clyde Snow & Sessions and Jacobs Engineering, Inc. to evaluate priority strategies thought to have a high potential to improve water management and increase water deliveries to Great Salt Lake. GSLAC identified 12 priority strategies are organized as Foundational, Operational, and Tactical in nature. Foundational Strategies are intended to remove legal constraints to delivering water to Great Salt Lake. The Operational Strategies serve to inform decision and policy makers, water users, and managers. Tactical Strategies serve to incentivize water users to protect, conserve, and make available water that could be used for deliveries to Great Salt Lake. The Report is intended to provide specific useful information on each strategy so the water user community can choose where to spend their resources in achieving the overarching goal of maintaining or increasing Great Salt Lake levels.

Consequences of Declining Water Levels

To better understand the implications that could result from continued declining water levels at Great Salt Lake, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council commissioned two reports:

The first report, “Consequences of Drying Lakes Around the World,” examines eight lakes with similar characteristics to Great Salt Lake. It found that drying lakes result in billions of dollars of economic losses, require extensive mitigation efforts and pose severe threats to human health and the environment.

The second report “Assessment of Potential Costs of Declining Water Levels in Great Salt Lake,” synthesizes information from scientific literature, agency reports, informational interviews, and other sources to detail how and to what extent costs could occur at sustained lower lake levels.

Water for Great Salt Lake

In response to an observed long-term decline in Great Salt Lake water levels, in 2017, GSLAC, in cooperation with SWCA Environmental Consultants, compiled a list of potential strategies to increase or maintain water delivery to Great Salt Lake. Strategies were solicited and submitted anonymously or without attribution. This document is intended to facilitate a discussion of potential strategies to maintain or increase the surface elevation of Great Salt Lake. The list is not exhaustive, but reflects an attempt to compile a wide range of strategic options. No ranking or prioritization was completed as part of the compilation process. Inclusion in this document does not constitute an endorsement of any individual strategy by GSLAC or its members. These strategies are ongoing topics of discussion for GSLAC.

Great Salt Lake Health and Economic Significance

During 2011, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council commissioned two reports to provide information that will aide the council in advising the Utah administrative and legislative bodies on the sustainable use, protection, and development of the Great Salt Lake.

The two major reports and the name of the contractor that led the effort were:

  1. Definition and Assessment of Great Salt Lake Health led by SWCA Environmental Consultants and Applied Conservation
  2. Economic Significance of the Great Salt Lake to the State of Utah led by Bioeconomics Inc.

Final Reports were submitted to the Council at the January, 2012 Work Meetings. Please click on the links below to view the fact sheets and final reports:

Past Activity


Published in Advocacy Issues

by Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Nov 1, 2020, 6:00pm MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The Dead Sea, bordering the West Bank, Israel and Jordan, is drying up at a rapid rate, leading to the formation of more than 5,000 sinkholes that are swallowing roads and other infrastructure.

Utah’s Great Salt Lake is in similar decline brought on by decades of drought and diversions from its tributaries that feed water to lawns and fields in northern Utah.

Terminal saline lakes like these two are in trouble around the world, and it is more than just aesthetics — whole economies, jobs, tourism and livelihoods are in jeopardy, along with ecosystems that support millions of birds and other wildlife.

But a recent study suggests that water users, by dropping their per-gallon-per-day consumption by 50 gallons, could delay a planned Utah project to siphon more water that feeds into the lake. The postponement could be as much as 45 years or longer if the practices take hold.

While the Great Salt Lake has not experienced a crush of sinkholes like the Dead Sea, it is something that should not be dismissed, said Great Salt Lake Coordinator Laura Vernon, with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. There have already been multiple local university studies probing the travel of wind-blown dust from the exposed lake bed at the Great Salt Lake, she added.

“I think Utah residents have been asked to be conservation minded quite a bit in the past, but this is a wake-up call to say if we don’t conserve, it will impact the Great Salt Lake — and there are negative consequences to that.”

This latest probe, call The Conservation Impacts Study commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, looked at water use in four large water districts and established that the daily average per person water consumption in 2015 was 232 gallons per day in these areas.

If water consumption could drop by 50 gallons per person in these large water districts, it would delay the need for the Bear River Development project by decades, the study says.

Prior studies have warned that based on current consumption patterns, the water levels in the Great Salt Lake could drop by an additional 11 feet into the future.

The consequences of a drying lake hurt human health, industry, the tourism sector and an area’s bottom line.

Click here to continue reading.


Read the full report commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council here.

Published in News and Events