During this session of the Utah Legislature, many eyes are on the Great Salt Lake. News reports have recently highlighted the lake’s dire condition, along with the chilling consequences for wildlife and humans if the lake is lost. A "strike team" of university and government experts has issued findings detailing the conditions that led to the lake's critically low level and scientifically-based evaluations of the policy options available for rescuing the lake and its ecosystem.
“Our findings are both stark and hopeful,” said strike team co-chairs Brian Steed, executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air, at Utah State University and William Anderegg, director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy at the University of Utah. “We firmly believe Great Salt Lake can be saved, but it will require state leadership, research university technical expertise, and individual and collective action.”
On June 23, 2022, as part of University of Utah President Taylor Randall's Utah Across Utah Tour, lawmakers and scientists met at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Wildlife Education Center in Farmington, Utah to talk about the lake's challenging situation. Lawmakers said they needed good data from scientists to help them make decisions. The U and Utah State University responded by forming the Great Salt Lake Strike Team.
The team brings together the current best science about the Great Salt Lake and provides lawmakers with tools to make informed decisions about managing the lake. The full strike team gathered for their first meeting on August 16, 2022.
The 22-member team includes representatives from the U, Utah State and the state of Utah. The strike team’s five co-chairs include two from the U: Anderegg and Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Other co-chairs include Steed, Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food and Joel Ferry, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Four other members of the team are U professors: John Lin, Kevin Perry and Court Strong of the department of atmospheric sciences and Paul Brooks of the department of geology and geophysics.
On Feb. 8, 2023, the strike team publicly released their initial report, "Great Salt Lake Policy Assessment," which had previously been shared with legislators including Brad Wilson, speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. The report begins by summarizing what is already known about the condition of Great Salt Lake. As temperatures have trended upward over the past 40 years, the report states, the amount of precipitation in the basin has stayed roughly the same, on average, while the amount of that water withdrawn by people has increased.
If the lake level sits below certain benchmarks, the report says, the ecosystems within the lake and the residents surrounding it face serious negative consequences. The exposed bed around the dwindling lake can generate dust storms that degrade the Wasatch Front’s already challenged air quality and potentially introduce toxic metals like arsenic into the air Utahns breathe. Low lake levels and increased saltiness also make life harder, and eventually impossible, for the brine shrimp and microbialite organisms that live in the lake and serve as the foundation of its food web.
So, what are those benchmarks? The record low water elevation of 4189 feet above sea level, measured in 2022, leads to “serious adverse effects to human, ecological, and economic health. Immediate action must be taken to prevent further impacts.”
The worst consequences can be avoided by raising the lake level to around 4198 feet, a level that “is deemed ‘beneficial’ for most uses.” Filling the lake up to that level in 10 years will require an inflow of more than 2 million acre-feet per year, the report says. One acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot, equivalent to 325,851 gallons. On average, since 2000, the lake receives around 1.6 million acre-feet from its primary tributaries, the Bear and Jordan Rivers, every year.
The report lays out different scenarios that would require different amounts of water flowing into the lake to raise its elevation. For example, a railroad causeway currently traverses the lake, drawing a line between the lake’s north arm and south arm. Water can flow between the two arms under the causeway. But if the causeway’s berm is raised, cutting off the north arm from the south arm, then the lake basin is essentially smaller and less water is needed to raise the lake to a healthy level.
The strike team concludes the report with evaluations of 11 frequently discussed policy actions for the Utah Legislature to consider. The policy actions include water conservation in the lake’s tributaries, ways to bring new water to the lake, and engineering solutions to mitigate the negative impacts of the lake’s low level, such as dust control.
Each policy action is rated according to its benefits for the health of the lake, its financial and cultural costs, and its feasibility. Optimizing water pricing, for example, carries a very low cost but also a low benefit to the lake. Importing water via a pipeline scores very high for lake benefits, but very low for feasibility.
The strike team does not advocate for specific policy options, but does make recommendations:
- Leverage wet years. The current wet year offers a significant opportunity to make progress on the lake elevation. Do not miss this opportunity.
- Set a lake elevation goal. Adopt a lake elevation target level range based on analysis prepared by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Preliminary analysis suggests a range in the 4,198-4,205-foot elevation level will maximize benefits across many factors. Meeting this goal requires policymakers to focus on inflows that both fill and maintain targeted elevation ranges.
- Invest in conservation. Conservation to increase the inflows to, or decrease withdrawals from, Great Salt Lake should be implemented to stop the decline in lake levels and initiate restoration.
- Invest in water monitoring and modeling. Additional investment in water intelligence will allow the state to be more responsive and effective to challenges. The Strike Team suggests a more than doubling of current state investments in accurate and timely measurements and forecasts that will help inform and guide state decisions.
- Develop a holistic long-term water resource plan for the watershed. The Utah Department of Natural Resources is currently developing the Great Salt Lake Basin Integrated Plan in partnership with water users, universities, environmental groups and government agencies. When finished, it will provide actions to ensure a resilient water supply for all water users in the basin, including Great Salt Lake. Resources should be allocated to the effort and all should be encouraged to participate.
- Request in-depth analyses on policy options. The governor and legislature can direct the Great Salt Lake Strike Team to further model specific policy options and parameters to identify the most water-efficient, cost-effective, and high-return options.