The Great Salt Lake is Utah’s canary in a coal mine, except you can see it from space.
In July of this year, the lake reached a historic low, sitting 10 feet below its average level, exposing vast expanses of dry lake bed, rendering the marina unusable for most boaters and jeopardizing the industries that depend on it.
My colleague, Brian Maffly, wrote this week about the shocking time-lapse photos that detail the decline of the Western Hemisphere’s largest inland saltwater body.
It is indeed a harbinger, warning us of the problems we may face if we do not listen.
The decline of the Great Salt Lake is not, contrary to popular belief, due to our ongoing “mega-drought”, although that does not help. The truth is that the diversions of water upstream for residential and agricultural use means that there isn’t enough water even downstream to replenish the lake.
A Utah State University study found that the lake is 11 feet lower than it would be without the diversions and that 130% of the available water is already allocated.
As a result, for four months this year, no water from the Bear River even reached the lake. Barring a monumental shift in the northern Utah snowpack, this trend will continue. The lake will continue to shrink and the ramifications of its disappearance will grow.
A 2012 study found that the Great Salt Lake generated $1.3 billion for the state’s economy through mining, brine shrimp harvesting, and recreation. All of this is threatened.
In mid-July this year, usually a peak time for sailing, boaters were already taking their boats out of the lake because the water level was too low for boats to access the docks.
This week, the head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources told lawmakers he plans to use some of the $5 million in federal funds to dredge the marina in hopes of keeping it viable.
The wetlands surrounding the lake are one of the most important migratory bird habitats in North America, hosting a few 250 species and millions of birds to feed and nest by the lake.
According to Kevin Perry, a University of Utah professor who has studied the phenomenon, the dry, dusty lake bed exposed by receding waters is prone to dust storms, which impacts human health.
There are immediate health effects, with the tiny dust particles making it difficult to breathe, especially for people with asthma or other respiratory conditions.
Then there are potential long-term effects. Soil samples from all over the lake bed have high levels of arsenic, Perry said, which can cause cancer with prolonged exposure.
The Grand Lac Salé is not alone in meeting these challenges. We’ve seen the same story unfold elsewhere.
Lake Urmia in Iran, the Aral Sea in Central Asia, Lake Poopó in Bolivia, Lake Owens and the Salton Sea in California, and the Dead Sea in Israel are examples of similar lakes that have all but disappeared, according to a 2019 Report of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.
The disappearance of these water bodies has wiped out ecosystems, subjected residents to frequent dust storms, decimated economies, and cost millions, if not billions, of dollars in remediation attempts.
Can we save our iconic lake and avoid the same consequences?
Perhaps, but it will require a significant shift in our state’s overall approach to water use, starting with abandoning our water use or waste policy. Currently, water must be put to a “beneficial use” — that is, produce some economic or agricultural return — otherwise the water rights holder can lose them. Water conservation and lake preservation are not considered a beneficial use.
If we make conservation a priority or at least on equal footing with agriculture, conservation groups and governments can start dedicating water rights for the lake.
Perhaps more importantly, Utah needs to take a break from the Bear River Development Project – a system of reservoirs and pipelines that will divert water for residents of northern Utah.
“Bear River [development] will be the destruction of the Great Salt Lake,” Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, told me this week. “It will dry up the Great Salt Lake beyond modern recognition.”
It makes sense. If water diversions are what threatens the lake, we can’t plant one more straw upstream and not expect it to have consequences. Proponents claim it will be cause the lake to fall less than a foot. Perhaps. But no doubt this will exacerbate a serious problem in providing water that may not even be needed for years.
More generally, we need to take conservation seriously. Utah is one of the driest states in the country, but uses the second highest amount of water per capita. And our water is cheap, a price structure that actively discourages conservation.
This is simply unsustainable, given Utah’s growth rate.
That means taking a critical look at agricultural uses, which consume the vast majority of the state’s water. Last week, the Utah Department of Natural Resources told lawmakers they plan to use $25 million in federal funds to measure secondary water statewide. Secondary water, where it is unmetered (which is most places), is either free or given at a flat rate, regardless of how much a customer uses – think of it as a buffet at willingness for water users. It’s been long overdue and it’s still not enough, but it’s a start.
And the League of Cities and Towns of Utah recommends legislation that would encourage cities to incorporate water into their overall plans — things like landscaping requirements and development permits — in the interests of sustainability. .
On January 5, House Speaker Brad Wilson will convene a Great Salt Lake Summit. This is an encouraging sign that senior leaders are aware of the problem and are focused on saving the lake.
But there must also be the political will to make the tough decisions and fundamentally reshape the way Utah thinks about water, not just to preserve the Great Salt Lake, but to save our water resources and our communities at through Utah.