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The future of the Great Salt Lake

This week, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints announced that they will be donating 5,700 of their water shares to the Great Salt Lake. Their donation is equivalent to 6.5 billion gallons of water flowing into the dwindling lake every year. The announcement came a day ahead of the Wallace Stegner Center 28th Annual Symposium, Future of the Great Salt Lake.

“We’re grateful that this effort working with the state will be conserved in perpetuity—it won’t be used for anything else in the future,” said Christopher Waddell, First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric as the symposium’s lecture hall erupted in cheers. “We’re committed to being part of the solution.”

Waddell was among dozens of speakers at the two-day event, hosted by the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah on March 16-17, 2023. One of the world’s largest hypersaline lakes, the Great Salt Lake is on the verge of collapse due to drought, climate change, and population growth that has reduced inflows from the creeks and rivers that feed the lake. This winter brought more precipitation than expected to the Great Basin and helped boost water levels by a couple of feet. Though welcome, the prevailing message from scientists, water policy experts, politicians and community leaders was clear—preserving the lake must remain a top priority.

“[This winter] is good news, but we’ll still be one of the driest states in the nation,” said Brad Wilson, Speaker of the House in the Utah House of Representatives, who presented highlights of the Utah State Legislature’s water policies over the last two years. “In my mind, the effort has just begun. If we don’t conserve water in years of plenty, our efforts are going to go nowhere.”

The symposium’s first day featured experts who spoke to the state of the lake and the factors leading to its decline, the risks to human health and billions of migratory birds, and the economic impacts if this ecosystem collapses. Scientists presented data, some from projects going back years, to make the case of the urgency of the issue. Researchers and advocates shared how their communities are impacted by a shrinking Great Salt Lake, and why all voices need to be involved in managing the lake.

“The land and waters that colonizers first put their eyes on were not ‘untouched’ or ‘Wild’ — they were the result of a broad range of Indigenous land and water management technique. To assume scientific knowledge is superior to Indigenous wisdom can be a barrier to meaningful and lasting collaboration,” said Darren Parry, former chairman, Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, author of The Bear River Massacre, A Shoshone History. “Now is the time to braid Indigenous and scientific knowledge that will allow us to manage our environment in ways that will allow us to achieve our goals and also support Indigenous sovereignty.”

Wilson and Wadell spoke on day two of the symposium, a day that focused on solutions that will help preserve the lake and keep the Salt Lake Basin livable. Alyse Bertenthal, assistant professor of law from Wake Forest University, set the tone for the day by sharing the lessons learned from California’s Owens Lake, an inland lake that dried up after Los Angeles diverted its water into the LA Aquaduct. Then came the dust. The lakebed contains arsenic, cadmium and the fine dust particles, known as particulate matter, (PM-10). Owens Lake is the largest contributor of PM-10 the United States and causes serious public health issues for residents hundreds of miles away.

“What we think of as a water problem has become a massive air pollution problem,” said Bertenthal. “The City of Los Angeles has paid more than a billion dollars in fines, and more than a billion dollars in dust control measures.”

Governor Spencer Cox followed Bernthal, announcing that he would “Governor-splain” the Great Salt Lake from his point of view.

“One billion dollars in two years in water investment in this state. I never thought in my lifetime that I’d see that kind of an investment from the legislature. And you know what the legislature hears from the left and scientists? What’s wrong with you guys. You aren’t doing nearly enough,” he told the group of attendees. “Now I’m not saying that you can’t be critical. You can be critical. But I’m saying be cautious of your criticism. And when we get victories, celebrate those victories with us.”

Find the list of speakers here. Check back on the website for speaker materials and recordings of the presentations.