Wasting Away | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

February 02, 2022 News » Cover Story

Wasting Away 

There's still time to save the Great Salt Lake—if the Legislature steps up.

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  • Corinne Jung

In July of 2021—one day before Utahns celebrated the anniversary of the first Mormon pioneers arriving in the Salt Lake Valley—a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gauge at the Saltair boat harbor quietly recorded a water surface elevation level of 4,191.3 feet.

That measurement, taken on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, was the lowest ever recorded since the USGS started measuring the lake's water levels—in 1875. The record didn't last long, as the lake continued to decline until mid-October, when irrigation water was turned off and a series of large storms caused a slight increase in the water level.

The lake remains below 4,191.3 feet in elevation today, however, and experts say it is likely to decline further if nothing is done to reverse the trend.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) calculates the average surface water elevation of the Great Salt Lake to be 4,202.2 feet above sea level. And because the lake is naturally shallow—approximately 35 feet at its deepest point and shaped more like a saucer than a bowl—this 11-foot drop below the average has reduced the volume of the lake by approximately 44% and has left an exposed, dry lakebed of nearly 800 square miles that was previously underwater.

An ideal water level, according to Sarah Null—an associate professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University—falls between 4,198 and 4,205 feet. Hitting that mark, she said, would be the "best to support economic, ecological, wildlife and recreation benefits of the lake."

Null and a number of other experts believe the lake is in crisis. And they warn that if lake levels continue to decline the way it has over the last three decades, one of the most unique and fragile ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere could eventually collapse, taking with it an estimated $1.5 billion dollars of annual economic value to the state and bringing with it various public health threats.

  • Courtesy Photo

But state Rep. Timothy D. Hawkes, R-Centerville, seems cautiously optimistic about the Great Salt Lake's future. In 2019, he sponsored HR10, a nonbinding resolution urging the "expeditious and collaborative development of recommendations" to avert economic, social and environmental harm from the lake and its adjacent wetlands.

"People should not be hopeless," Hawkes said recently on a podcast produced by the Utah House. "All the best science and data and experience suggest that if we act now, it's not too late to save the Great Salt Lake. We are not in a situation where we've lost a precious resource, and we are trying to clean up the pieces afterward."

If we act today, Hawkes said, residents' children, grandchildren "and beyond" can continue to enjoy the lake and its benefits.

"It's our namesake right—the Great Salt Lake," he said. "It's an important resource. It touches us in ways we don't realize. But here's the thing—all of us, acting together, we can do things to protect it."

Trickle Downstream
The story of the lake's decline is one that is sadly typical of saline lakes in the American West, and that story begins with its ecology. The Great Salt Lake is the largest terminal lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth largest in the world. Terminal lakes have no outlet—meaning water leaves mainly through evaporation.

Salt, of course, doesn't evaporate, which is why the lake has salt levels that are much higher than the world's oceans. According to the USGS, 66% of the lake's water comes from three main rivers—the Bear, Weber and Provo, the latter of which flows into Utah Lake and then exits that lake via the Jordan River—and other smaller streams in the area. Of the remaining lake volume, roughly 30% comes from precipitation and 3% comes from groundwater.

The lake is bounded by a series of large wetlands that, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) estimates, are used by more than 10 million birds. That figure includes approximately 330 different species, many of which use lake areas as a stopover—as a feeding and/or breeding ground—on their remarkable migratory journeys, some of which extend as far north as the Arctic and as far south as South America.

Despite its high levels of salinity, the lake is teeming with life. There are an estimated 17 trillion brine shrimp swimming in its waters. Not only are these brine shrimp a vital food source for many migratory birds, they play an important economic role. During reproduction—which according to the DWR, generally occurs between late October and January—these tiny crustaceans lay eggs (generally called cysts) that are harvested and shipped out across the world as food for aquaculture.

Don Leonard, who chairs the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council (GSLAC) and is the CEO of the Great Brine Shrimp Cooperative in Ogden, said that approximately 40% of the world's aquaculture brine shrimp come from the Great Salt Lake.

Despite its importance ecologically and economically, water that flows into the Great Salt Lake has never legally been considered to be beneficial. Instead, Utah's water rights laws are based on the doctrine of prior appropriation.

Jonathan Clyde is an associate attorney at Clyde, Snow and Sessions—a firm that recently helped provide a legal analysis and review of 12 strategies GSLAC determined to be most feasible in protecting the lake. The prior appropriation doctrine, he explained, "is another way of saying 'first in time, first in right.' Whoever got the first diversion, and first put that water to beneficial use, has priority to that water and is entitled to 100% of their water before anyone else is." (It should be noted that his law firm also serves as general counsel for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District—the largest in the state—and the firm's main partner, Steve Clyde, serves as a lobbyist for that district.)

  • Courtesy Photo

The key term to Clyde's comment is "beneficial use." The prior appropriation doctrine was established to give priority to those who divert water for things considered to be beneficial, such as agriculture, mining and municipal purposes. When this doctrine was put into law in 1903, water flowing into the Great Salt Lake didn't meet those criteria. It still doesn't.

The three rivers that contribute most of the water to the Great Salt Lake, Clyde said, are fully appropriated. "That is, every single drop of water is called for before it reaches the Great Salt Lake," he said. "Strictly from a water rights perspective, any water that reaches the lake is wasted, as it doesn't go to any beneficial use."

Shortly after becoming a state in 1850, California became the first Western state to put prior appropriation into law. This doctrine was used in 1913 to justify construction of the first of two aqueducts designed to divert water before it reached the shores of the salty Owens Lake and to usher it to the burgeoning population of Los Angeles—some 200 miles away.

Within a dozen years, Owens Lake was just a dusty playa with a small brine pool. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the area to be in violation of national ambient air quality standards in 1987, the dry lakebed of Owen Lake was the largest source of dust in North America and exposed its nearby communities with unhealthy levels of aerosol particulate matter less than 10 micrometers (PM10)—which is small enough to be breathed deeply into the lungs—an average of 25 days per year.

But no effort to mitigate the problem began until a court order in 2001 required it. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has since spent over $2.1 billion dollars in mitigation efforts. And though they have met with some success, the lake and its ecosystem will never be the same.

Warning Signs
There is concern that what happened with Owens Lake could, to some degree, happen with the Great Salt Lake, which currently has an exposed lakebed eight times larger than Owens Lake was when it was completely full.

Kevin Perry is the chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah. By his own admission, he has likely spent more time on the dry areas of the exposed lakebed surrounding the Great Salt Lake than anyone else. During the course of over two years, he rode his fat bike with a small trailer towed behind it around the entire area of exposed lakebed.

  • Corinne Jung

Every 500 meters, he set up a grid point, collected soil samples and examined the conditions of the surface crust. In the process, he put over 2,300 miles on his bike and brought 3 tons of soil back to his lab, which he then sifted into dust and tested for harmful heavy metals.

He found a number of them, and every single measurement of arsenic he recorded exceeded EPA regional screening levels, which calculates risk by combining exposure-level assumptions with known toxicity levels. According to the National Institutes of Health, chronic exposure to arsenic has been associated with skin, lung and bladder cancers.

Perry also noted that approximately 24% of the exposed lakebed currently has very little crust and can be easily picked up and moved by the wind. The longer the lakebed remains dry, the greater the likelihood that more thin crust will result and be swept into the air in greater abundance.

Much of that dust is smaller than PM10. With the Great Salt Lake in close proximity to the state's most populated areas, the potential for dust storms negatively affecting the health of the community is high.

But it is not just the dust smaller than PM10 that poses a potential issue. McKenzie Skiles, a snow hydrologist at the University of Utah, recently recalled watching a dust storm develop from her office on campus. "When the wind began to come from the west," she said, "there was a wall of dust that came straight toward the university."

Because dust swept up from the exposed lakebed of the Great Salt Lake is in such close proximity to the Wasatch Range, Stiles explained, it often contains large particle sizes, which stay on the snow surface. And that dirt falling on the snow accelerates snowmelt. From this one event, she estimated that the melting of the snowpack near her test site in Alta was accelerated by one week.

"We want to keep snow melting slowly in the spring, because that allows us to fill our reservoirs and to use the water efficiently," Stiles said. "When we accelerate snowmelt, we lose more of it to evaporation. And it impacts the economy—nobody wants to ski on dirty snow, it's not fun. We want to keep that snowpack clean, so people come back and enjoy skiing and bring with them money that goes into the local economy."

Starting with the creation of GSLAC in 2010, the state Legislature has taken up the issue of the lake's decline several times. The resolutions that have passed recognize the significance of the Great Salt Lake and that, as it states in 2019's HCR10, "there is a need for an overall policy that supports effective administration of water flow to Great Salt Lake to maintain or increase lake levels, while appropriately balancing economic, social, and environmental needs, including the need to sustain working agriculture land."

A lot of research has been done, legal reviews and analyses have been written and recommendations have been made. But so far, an overall policy has been lacking. Instead, the state Legislature seems to be taking a piecemeal approach to the issue. Though Utah's Gov. Spencer Cox and Speaker of the House Brad Wilson have both recently made much fuss about implementing "actionable policies" to address the declining waters of the Great Salt Lake this legislative session, it's mostly been bills dealing with general water conservation that are under consideration.

HB95, for example, would make it illegal for HOAs and municipalities to require homeowners to have verdant, water-thirsty lawns but would still allow these entities to require well-maintained landscaping. HB121 would provide a financial incentive for homeowners to replace their lawns with landscaping that is more water efficient and would set restrictions on water used for landscaping at state government facilities.

Secondary water metering is another important strategy to boost conservation among both commercial and residental water users. Secondary water is non-potable untreated, unfiltered water used to irrigate outdoor landscaping and gardening. Some water conservancy districts are now wholeselling secondary water to water providers.

Tage Flint, the general manager of Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, recently stated that the district has "spent upward of $20 million already on connecting secondary water meters, and we intend to spend much more going forward." This pilot project is, for now, limited to an area in Woods Cross, where meters are being installed. The program is set to begin in May, when secondary water is again turned on.

Emails requesting information on how that money is being allocated and how much the program is estimated to cost annually received no response.

Flint estimates that secondary water metering can reduce per-capita water usage by as much as 25%, but the cost to implement it statewide would be at least $300 million. A 2018 report on water data collection done by the Utah Division of Water Resources, however, states that unmetered secondary water use may be underestimated by as much as 34%.

  • Corinne Jung

The state is in a unique position this year to allocate funds to this and other water-associated projects, as the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) provides Utah with more than $1 billion in one-time funds. And the state has flexibility with how that money is spent. The plan that has been presented this session to the Legislative Water Development Commission, however, only calls for $50 million to be put towards installing secondary water meters—a far cry from the total estimated cost to implement the program statewide.

The ARPA plan also calls for increasing funds to the Department of Agriculture and Food's Water Optimization Program that is currently in its third year and saw a 300% increase in applications last year. This program is designed to assist ranchers and farmers in upgrading their consumptive water techniques and equipment to more efficiently and accurately use irrigation water. Agriculture is, by far, the biggest consumer of water in the state. Data from the DNR state that approximately 72% of total water used in Utah is diverted for agriculture.

But as the law is currently written, there is little incentive for a farmer to conserve water or use it more efficiently. Utah is a "use it or lose it" state. If a farmer doesn't use his or her annual water allotment at least once in a seven-year period, the farmer could potentially lose the right to at least part of it.

Water-rights attorney Clyde said that forfeiture of water rights is rare, as it would require a judicial determination. "The person who brings that type of lawsuit doesn't get access to the forfeited water," he said. "It just goes back into the public."

The threat is there, however, and HB33—sponsored by Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City, who himself is a farmer—seeks to amend the 2020 in-stream flow legislation to offer financial incentives for farmers to put the water they don't use back into the stream for non-consumptive use. And by sending part of the water they have rights to downstream, farmers and ranchers don't risk forfeiture of those rights.

"That water will flow downstream and the farmer will receive [fair market] compensation from a conservation group or the state of Utah or the federal government, whichever is the participant in the program," Ferry said.

Slowing the Flow
Conservation efforts can work. A 2016 study on impacts of water development on the Great Salt Lake shows that water conservation has reduced urban per-capita water consumption by 18%.

Professor Null contributed to this study. She said it compared water consumption in the Great Salt Lake watershed between 1989-2000 and 2010-2014. Though overall use of water increased by approximately 5.6%, she considers the decline in per-capita use a big win for conservation, as the population in Utah between these time periods increased by a far greater percentage.

Some of the biggest factors in this reduced consumption, Null said, are newer appliances, such as low-flow toilets, showerheads and washing machines. As a result, the Bear River Development Project—authorized in 1991 by Legislature to build additional reservoirs and other facilities that were estimated to be needed by 2015—is, according to the DNR, now projected to be pushed out until 2050.

This project is calculated to cost taxpayers between $1.5 and $2.8 billion dollars and would further reduce the elevation of the Great Salt Lake by 8 to 14 inches. Even with our increased conservation efforts, Null warned, Utah still uses more water per-capita than almost any other state and "conservation should continue beyond Utah's 25% conservation goal to be in line with other Western states."

The piecemeal and indirect approach the Legislature seems to be taking toward the crisis at the Great Salt Lake could eventually pay off (assuming the bills mentioned above are signed into law). But most of these approaches require long-term investment.

The amendments to the in-stream flow legislation, for instance, do not create a water right for rivers or the Great Salt Lake. Instead, they pave the way for existing rights-holders to voluntarily place their unused water on the market, for non-consumptive use, without losing those rights.

But who will the buyer be? Will the Legislature put up the money, year after year, to purchase that water? Will it reliably allocate money to incentivize water-efficient landscaping? What about meeting the total cost of implementing a secondary water metering program statewide?

Putting money toward a project is easy when the state receives a federal windfall like ARPA. But without an overall state-led policy that deals directly with the decline of the Great Salt Lake, it remains to be seen if there will be ongoing funding for programs that protect the lake.

And in the meantime, lake levels will likely continue to drop.

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About The Author

Jared W. Blackley

More by Jared W. Blackley

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