October 08, 2021

As Great Salt Lake shrivels and Salt Lake Valley’s population swells, state regulators reveal what worries them most

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) (Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune)

‘Air quality and the Great Salt Lake levels are very tightly coupled,’ one scientist warns.

Salt Lake Tribune | By Leia Larsen | Oct. 2, 2021, 8:15 a.m.

Utah has made strides in cleaning up its polluted air, but climate change could blow up that progress.

One need only look at the drying Great Salt Lake to see a ticking time bomb — as its lakebed gets exposed and desiccated, it could turn into a toxic source of pollution in the form of blowing dust.

“We’re really concerned about the Great Salt Lake and the impacts that we’re seeing due to historic drought, but also clearly the impacts due to a shifting climate and all of the variables that we simply can’t control as humans or policymakers,” said Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, who hosted a town hall about the lake and air quality this week. He said he has been “inundated” with calls from concerned constituents.

The lake hit a record low elevation in July, and with an intense drought gripping nearly all of the state, there is little relief in sight.

Last year, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council released a report with 12 strategies to increase the amount of water reaching the lake. Some include efforts that are already underway, like metering untreated secondary water and incentives for more efficient irrigation. Others require rethinking longstanding water laws, such as recognizing a right to conserve water and finding a way to make sure that conserved water makes it way to the lake.

“I like to think of the Great Salt Lake as a wicked problem where there is no one solution,” said Laura Vernon, who works as the Great Salt Lake coordinator in a new role created by the Legislature. “The solution isn’t cheap. And [if] you solve one problem somewhere, then it creates another problem somewhere else.”

The Great Salt Lake desperately needs water, state regulators noted during the town hall, but there is no easy way to get it. A 2016 study conducted by the Division of Water Resources, Utah State University and others found the lake’s elevation would be 11 feet higher today if humans didn’t divert water from its tributaries, like the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers. Water rights lay claim to every drop in the state, and there is little incentive for the people holding those rights to let them keep flowing downstream, especially as persistent drought drains the state’s reservoirs.

Click here to read the full story on the Salt Lake Tribune website.