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Don’t be fooled by last year’s big winter. Great Salt Lake remains in trouble

The U hosts a data and policy update from the Great Salt Lake strike team next week as Utah lawmakers prepare for the 2024 legislative session.

Members of the Great Salt Lake strike team, an interdisciplinary, multiagency group of researchers and policy experts, are to release and publicly discuss their data and policy update next week ahead of Utah’s upcoming legislative session.

The group was assembled in 2022 drawing from the University of Utah, Utah State University and various Utah state agencies to study the Great Salt Lake’s dire condition resulting from prolonged low water levels and to investigate potential solutions. It released a 32-page report in February 2023, providing six major insights and recommendations.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

William Anderegg

“The goal of the strike team is to try to provide the best data we can to help decision makers,” U biology professor William Anderegg, a strike team co-chair, told a water conference hosted by legislative leadership in November. “This is trying to lay out different scenarios, different options of bringing certain amounts of water to the lake to try to refill it towards more healthy levels.”

The update will be released Jan. 10 at the Gardner Policy Institute’s next Newsmaker Breakfast, a monthly event highlighting important events impacting Utah. It will include a panel discussion moderated by U business professor Natalie Gochnour, the institute’s director and another strike team co-chair.

While Utah’s water year that concluded last September with nearly twice the average precipitation, the slightly replenished Great Salt Lake remains in need of greater inflows to ensure its ecological survival, according to Anderegg and fellow co-chair Brian Steed.

The level of the lake’s South Arm rebounded 5.5 feet last year, following the record low it experienced in the fall of 2022. Today it sits at 4,192.6 feet above sea level, more than six feet below what some consider the level needed to restore the lake’s health.

Last year saw a record snow pack, but the spring runoff didn’t match it.

“One of the reasons we didn’t see a record runoff is because the ground was much drier. And so as we had that that record snowfall, much of that just went into the ground,” said Steed at the November conference. “And then the stuff that did make it into runoff, a lot of that we captured into reservoir storage. That’s actually, for those of us that drink water, a good thing, but be aware that that’s also water that didn’t reach the lake.”

A total of 1.6 million acre-feet of water was captured in these upstream reservoirs, such as Pine View and Deer Creek, last year.

The graph shows the Great Salt Lake’s elevation in feet above sea level going back to 1905. Credit: Great Salt Lake strike team

“That’s taking the reservoirs from what was in really scary situations at the end of [2022] and we put them up to where at the end irrigation season right now, they’re sitting about 75% of capacity,” Steed said. “That’s a very healthy position to be in.”

A former executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Steed now directs USU’s Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air. Gov. Spencer Cox, last year, named him Great Salt Lake Commissioner, a position newly created by the Legislature.

Historically, the Great Salt Lake’s elevation averaged 4,200 feet and it covered 1,700 square miles. Now about 750 square miles of the lakebed is exposed, raising considers that dust laden with toxic chemicals accumulated in the bed are degrading Salt Lake City’s air quality. Low water levels are also imperiling the reef-like carbonate mounds called microbialites that cover about 20% of the lakebed and increase the lake’s salinity.

If we have roughly average years, we think we’re likely able to maintain those [low] lake levels, but refilling is going to take additional conservation and it really pens out to how lucky we’re going to get between drought and average conditions,” Anderegg said, “and how quickly we as a state decide we want to try to bring water to the lake towards a more healthy level.”

Much of the lake’s historic depletion has been attributed to upstream diversions, largely to support agriculture, and years of drought stretching back to 2000 have made matters worse. Rescuing the lake will likely require allowing more water to flow down the Weber, Provo/Jordan and Bear rivers, which account for 18%, 22% and 60% of the lake’s inflows, respectively.

According to the strike team’s updated data, 2.8 million acre-feet of water—about twice the average inflows in recent years—must flow into the lake each year for its level to reach 4,198 feet, the lower end of what is considered optimal, in five years, or nearly 2.2 million acre-feet a year to reach that level in 20 years.

“We all have a stake in the Great Salt Lake. I don’t care where you live, or what part of the state, because ultimately if we don’t get it right, the lake itself will create a regulatory regime through either federal action or through court action that will cost all of us money,” Steed told the conference. “There’s a better way, and that better way is to take care of [the lake] in the shorter term, the medium term and the long term, and to make sure that we are ahead of the problems that we see coming down the pike.”

The Newsmaker Breakfast begins at 8 a.m. in the Monson Center, 411 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City.  Members of the news media are invited to attend and ask questions. To register, click here.

Wednesday’s panel features five strike team members: Brian Steed; William Anderegg; David Tarboton, director Utah Water Research Laboratory at USU; Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources; and Paul Brooks, a U professor of geology.