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The race is on to save the Great Salt Lake: will that be enough?

SALT LAKE CITY — The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi is shrinking past its lowest levels on record, raising fears of toxic dust, ecological collapse and economic consequences. But the Great Salt Lake may have new allies: conservative Republican lawmakers.

The new burst of energy from the GOP-dominated state government comes after lake levels recently bottomed during a regional mega-drought exacerbated by climate change. However, water has been diverted from the lake for years to supply Utah homes and crops. The fastest growing state in the country is also one of the driest, with some of the highest domestic water consumption.

This year could see a big investment in the lake that has long been an afterthought, with Governor Spencer Cox offering to spend $46 million and the powerful Speaker of the House leaning on the issue. But some worry that the ideas advanced so far in the state Legislature do not go far enough to stop the environmental disaster in slow motion.

One proposal would tackle water use in homes and businesses, metering outdoor water which is considered some of the cheapest in the country. Another would pay farmers to share their water downstream, and a third would direct mining royalty money to benefit the lake.

“I’ve long taken the lake for granted. It’s always been there, and I assumed it always would be,” House Speaker Brad Wilson said at a summit he hosted. called on the matter. But learning of the lake’s precarious position this summer left him terrified. “The Great Salt Lake is in trouble. … We have to do something.”

The shrinking lake poses serious risks to millions of migratory birds and a lake-based economy worth an estimated $1.3 billion in mineral extraction, brine shrimp and recreation. Health risks also exist: the huge dry bed of the lake could send dust containing arsenic into the air that millions of people breathe.

“The Great Salt Lake needs a few jumps to be saved. It won’t come in small steps,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council. babies that should have been made 20 years ago.”

Shrimp both support a multi-million dollar industry providing food for fish farms and feed millions of migrating birds whose massive flocks may appear on the radar. The lake is also the country’s largest source of magnesium and could soon provide lithium, a key mineral for renewable energy batteries.

But last year the lake hit a 170-year high and continued to decline, hitting a new low of 4,190.2 feet (1,277.2 meters) in October. A significant part of the microbialites was exposed to the air, killing vital microbes. Death will likely take years and years to repair even if they are completely submerged again, said Michael Vanden Berg, a state geologist.

And if water levels continue to drop, the lake could become too salty for edible microbes to survive, which has already happened in the bright pink waters of the lake’s North Arm.

Still, Vanden Berg is cautiously optimistic for the South Arm, where some of the green microbialites survived last year’s lake fall.

“It’s bad but not catastrophic yet,” he said. “There is still time to repair and alleviate the situation.”

In some ways, the solution is simple: more water needs to flow into the lake.

But that’s no small task in the state, which has grown 18.4% over the past decade to nearly 3.28 million people.

Utah overall has relatively cheap water. A 2015 state audit found that water prices in Salt Lake City were lower than nearly every other city surveyed, including Phoenix, Las Vegas and Santa Fe.

But a subset of households have access to particularly cheap water — the cheapest in the nation, according to the Utah Rivers Council.

About 200,000 households and businesses pay a flat fee for an entire season of irrigation water. It’s called a secondary water system, made from converted agricultural supply in communities that are now largely suburban. These represent a disproportionately large segment of the state’s water use — and many of them are in the Great Salt Lake watershed, Frankel said.

“It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” he said. While most people have a water meter on the side of their house, usage is unmetered for secondary water users.

But small-scale projects have shown that simply being mindful of how much they use causes people to cut back by 20%, said GOP Utah Rep. Tim Hawkes.

There have been pushbacks to change the system before, and part of the reason is the cost per yard of about $1,500, but the governor backed spending about $250 million in federal relief funds in pandemic to install them.

The Utah Rivers Council would like to see people pay more for this water, but there has been little public discussion about it this year. Hawkes argues that even 20% conservation through outreach would dramatically increase the chances of the lake remaining healthy.

This year is shaping up to be a wetter year than 2021, but that doesn’t immediately translate to more water for the lake. First comes the replenishment of drinking water. Next comes the lake.

And homes and businesses aren’t the only ones that need moisture. About 65% of the water in the Great Salt Lake watershed is used for agriculture. Farmers have a right to this water and, under historical laws, they could lose the water they don’t use.

“Right now, there’s actually a disincentive for agriculture to conserve or optimize the water it uses,” Republican Rep. Joel Ferry said.

He is sponsoring legislation that would allow farmers to be paid for the water they leave flowing into the Great Salt Lake and other bodies. Since every farmhouse is much larger than the average home, even slight adjustments can have a major impact.

Under his plan, which advanced to the state Legislature, it would be up to each farm to decide whether or not to sell water in any given year. The fund would also likely start with federal money in the event of a pandemic, and funders hope to secure donations as they go.

“It’s going to be a slow start,” said Ferry, who is a farmer himself. “We recognize there is a problem, and farmers want to be part of the solution. … Ultimately, the solutions to this are going to be expensive.

The costs of doing nothing can be even higher. The drying up of Lake Owens in California as Los Angeles grew cost billions. Overseas, the Aral Sea has become a source of toxic dust after its water was diverted by the former Soviet Union. Experts estimate that a drying up of the Great Salt Lake could cost Utah more than $2 billion each year.

“There is a real question about what will happen next. Are we going to cross some critical thresholds here in a moment if we keep going down? Hawkes said. “If we act now and think about it…there’s a good chance we can keep the lake healthy and happy – and us with it.”

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion