Attended by researchers, policymakers, state and federal leaders and other lake stakeholders, the second annual Great Salt Lake Summit convened Thursday. Presenters tried to outline progress that has been made to save the lake since the last summit and experts explained the threat, Utah’s water sources, trends and cycles, and discussed possible solutions.
The Great Salt Lake is at a historical low elevation. Should the Great Salt Lake continue to follow the current trend and dry out, the environmental, economic and ecological impacts would be devastating. The increased dust would worsen Utah’s air quality and introduce more particulate matter, including heavy metals and arsenic, to the air. The industries that depend on the lake, like magnesium mining and aquaculture harvesting, could dry up as well. The life that dwells in and relies on the lake are already in decline.
Presenters Dr. William Anderegg, Director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, and Dr. Brian Steed, Executive Director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air, surmised, if we act now, with interventions, the lake can return to healthy levels over the next 30 years. However, we have to recognize that human activity and water consumption are the dominant contributors to the Great Salt Lake’s dramatic drop in water level (from 67-73%). And of that water consumption, agriculture interests divert the most water from the Great Salt Lake. The difficulty of addressing this challenge is multiplied when we consider that Utah is projected to double in population in the next 4-5 decades. In short, Utah needs to dramatically change the way it diverts and consumes water, mostly by using a whole lot less of it than we are now.
“I am proud of the work we have done and the progress that has been made, but we still have a long way to go,” said Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, who hosted the summit. “Protecting and preserving the Great Salt Lake is a marathon, not a sprint. It will take a continuous effort for many years, from government, the private sector, and all Utahns. And while we may never fully see the impacts of our work, this is simply a race we cannot afford to lose.”
Wilson began the summit by referencing a recent Deseret News and Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that found that 80% of Utahns are either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the Great Salt Lake, which seems to show public support is behind efforts to stave off the lake’s demise. So far, those efforts have included throwing some money at the problem, including a $40 million trust to increase water for Great Salt Lake and improve the lake’s upstream habitat, created by the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program (H.B. 410). The Utah legislature also appropriated $50 million in 2022 (to supplement $20 million in funding appropriated in November 2021 and the Agricultural Water Optimization Task Force created in 2018) for agricultural water optimization to reduce water use.
At the summit, Speaker Wilson announced his intent to introduce legislation to create “Utah Water Ways,” which he described as a nonprofit, public-private partnership with the mission to help educate all Utahns on how they can do their part to conserve water.
But there is much more to do to build on the State’s piecemeal approach, including the retrofitting of landscapes away from traditional turf and new practices to avoid over-watering. Wastewater reuse might not be the answer, given that water is depleted in the recycling process, but it could have its place, according to Candice Hasenyager, Director of Utah Division of Water Resources. Cloudseeding could also play a part. Steed explained that further examination is also needed of how to keep agriculture production up while using much less water. A pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake probably isn’t the most feasible option.
To conserve water, experts hit on the need for more education, incentives and regulation. While many of the State’s water-wise incentive programs are just barely up and running, when it comes to regulation, “Every municipality needs to be looking at their water ordinances,” said Bart Forsyth, Director of Jordan Valley Water Conservancy. He added that there should not be any new building construction without planning for water optimization.