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A roadmap for rescuing the Great Salt Lake

Conservation won't be enough to save Utah's inland sea. Saved water must be "shepherded" to the lake, rather than used by someone else.

Conserving water won’t be enough to restore the depleted Great Salt Lake, the signature Utah landscape whose existence as a functioning ecosystem remains seriously imperiled from low water levels and rising salinity.

Much of the water saved by Utah cities and farms through various conservation measures will have to be allowed to flow into the terminal lake if its levels are to rebound and remain at a safe level, according to Utah’s Great Salt Lake Strike Team, which released its latest data analysis Wednesday just ahead of Utah’s upcoming legislative session.

To get the lake up to a healthy level within 30 years, it will need to see average inflows increase by 471,000 acre-feet a year, a roughly 33% increase in the amount that has reached the lake in recent years.

Gardner Policy Institute director Natalie Gochnour, left, moderates a panel discussion featuring six members of the Great Salt Lake Strike Team on Wednesday. Credit: Brian Maffly, University of Utah.

“We really need to focus on water shepherding going forward to make sure that the water that we conserve gets to the lake,” said team co-chair Brian Steed Wednesday at a Newsmaker Breakfast hosted by the University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City. 

“Water conservation efforts will be ineffective for Great Salt Lake if conserved water fails to reach it,” the report states. “The shepherding process requires accurate measurement, robust accounting models, and timely adjustments so depletions can be accurately quantified.”

This idea is a key point in the strike team’s legislative report, which will be followed in the coming weeks with a series of policy sketches, each exploring a specific area for lawmakers’ consideration.

“Decision-makers must balance human, ecological, and economic health as they take actions to improve water management, mitigate adverse impacts, and increase water deliveries to the lake,” said team co-chair and U biology professor William Anderegg, who directs the U’s Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy. “This report makes clear the challenges Utah faces, but also demonstrates the value of working together, in a data-informed way, to ensure the health and sustainability of Great Salt Lake.”

The 29-member interdisciplinary strike team features eight U faculty, including three professors of atmospheric sciences and two geology professors, as well as several from Utah State University and representatives from various state agencies, such as Joel Ferry and Kim Shelley, executive directors of the Departments of Natural Resources and of Environmental Quality, respectively.

Satellite images of the Great Salt Lake show the lake’s decline since 1987 until its record low in 2022. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey.

A former DNR director, Steed now heads 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.

Shepherding the strike team is Gardner Institute director Natalie Gochnour, who moderated a panel discussion Wednesday starring Anderegg, Steed, Ferry and three other strike team members.

“This is taking academia and putting it into action,” Gochnour said. “It’s a great story of our research universities applied  to a state problem and we’re better for it.”

Upstream water diversions, a warming climate and more than two decades of drought have shrunk the Great Salt Lake, which supports millions of migratory birds, as well as valuable brine shrimp and mineral industries. Hundreds of miles of lakebed have been exposed for years, leaving a dust source that could degrade Salt Lake City’s already troubled air quality.

“Air temperature has been rising here in northern Utah. It’s gone up about two to three Fahrenheit in the past four decades, and that makes our water resource management challenges harder,” Anderegg said. “Higher temperatures suck more water out of lakes, out of soils and out of crops, and that really is going to be a long-term trend that we have to keep an eye on.”

After decades of neglect, rescuing the lake has emerged as a signature priority for the Legislature and other state leaders, but solutions will not come easy, cheap or fast.

Here’s how much water is depleted from the Great Salt Lake, broken down by type of depletion: agriculture; municipal and industrial; managed wetlands; and mineral extraction. Source: Great Salt Lake Strike Team

“Restoring Great Salt Lake to health will not be a one-year, one-policy, one-constituency solution,” Steed said. “Rather, a coordinated, data-driven approach will be necessary so decision-makers can evaluate tradeoffs and balance competing interests. The strike team makes this possible by providing authoritative, accurate, and current information about the lake’s past, present, and potential future.”

 The team’s report offered several updated data points for lawmakers to consider in light of last winter’s record snowpacks.

While last year’s snowy winter brought a welcome reprieve from years of drought, the runoff it produced was far less than hoped, because much was absorbed into the ground. And lots more was captured in upstream reservoirs. On the bright side, the water held in those reservoirs grew by 1.6 million acre-feet, the largest increase ever recorded in a single year.

Water use by mineral-extraction operations peaked back in 2007 and now accounts for just 7.4% of human depletions from the lake. While agriculture accounts for the greatest share, its use of water has remained flat since 1989, while municipal use has grown in the face of relentless growth.

The team released its initial report last February in the middle of the legislative session. That report recommended the state designate a target elevation to measure progress toward recovering the lake. Experts believe the optimal range is between 4,198 and 4,205 feet above sea level, which is in line with the shallow lake’s average elevation over the past century.

This graphic indicates projected elevations of the Great Salt Lake under various conservation strategies. Source: Great Salt Lake Strike Team

Today the lake’s South Arm sits at 4,192.6 feet above sea level, a few feet above the record low it set in the fall of 2022 before the robust snowpack gave the lake a desperately needed boost last year. South Arm salinity peaked at 179 grams per liter, which translates to nearly 18% salt, or six times saltier than the ocean.

The North Arm, which is separated from the South Arm by a railroad causeway, is significantly saltier and lower in elevation since none of the lake’s major tributaries reach that area.

The strike team created an elevation matrix indicating inflow volumes required to achieve a lake elevation of 4,198—the bottom of the healthy range—over timeframes ranging from 5 to 30 years. According to the updated data, 2.8 million acre-feet of water, or twice the average inflows in recent years, must flow into the lake to reach that threshold in 5 years.

“That requires a tremendous amount of water, and I think that from a policy consideration standpoint, it’s unlikely,” Steed said. “The numbers for the 30-year timeframe is about 471,000 acre-feet per year. That’s a tall order, but it’s not impossible.”

The return of the Olympic Games will likely put the Great Salt Lake, and Utah’s efforts to save it, on the world’s radar.

“We have this 10-year period to show the world how to conserve water, how to manage a terminal lake, and how to really work together to prosper in a dry climate,” Anderegg said. “The world will be literally flying in over the lake as they come in 2034 to compete. And as the eyes of the world will be on us, I think this is a motivator and a huge opportunity for the state.”