Utah's population growth questionable without Great Salt Lake, researcher says

Tuesday , May 03, 2016 - 12:00 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

When exploring the economic impacts of the Great Salt Lake, it’s easy to look at the dollars flowing from lake industries to state coffers. But there are a slew of costs that are hard to assign solid numbers to, like the toll on the environment and Utahns’ quality of life.

Late last winter, Utah State University and various state agencies released a study showing the lake would be 11 feet higher if not for water diversions by people. Gabriel Lozada, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah, broke the study down.

“Water supply issues in Utah don’t have anything to do with supporting population,” he said. “It’s supporting growing one type of grass or another — alfalfa (hay) or Kentucky bluegrass.”

MORE: If Utah's Great Salt Lake dries up, consequences will be global

Municipal and industrial water consumption alone has lowered the Great Salt Lake by about 1.3 feet. Around 67 percent of Utah’s household water goes outdoors, mostly to lawns. 

Agriculture claims 63 percent of water in the Great Salt Lake Basin and is attributed with dropping the lake by about 7 feet.

Half of Utah’s agricultural water irrigates alfalfa fields, according to a 2015 study by the Utah Foundation. A lot of that hay doesn’t even stay in Utah — it’s exported to Asia and the Middle East.

“If we were to eliminate agricultural water use — for example by paying farmers more than they earn currently to sell their water to urban areas, so the farmers would not be hurt — we could increase non-agricultural water use by … 1.7 times,” Lozada said. “Without any new sources of water.”

Of course, eliminating Utah’s agricultural industry is a tricky proposition — it represents 14 percent of the state’s economy, while industries on the Great Salt Lake contribute roughly 1 percent.

Utah’s population is set to double by 2050, but Lozada figures if state policymakers could get Utahns to plant drought-tolerant native grasses and eliminate agriculture, the state could support a population of around 14 million people — over seven times larger than the population today.

Utahns’ economic reliance on livestock feed and love of green lawns could, in time, make the Wasatch Front a miserable place to live. What’s not accounted for in state economic studies are the indirect economic effects that come from a drying lake. 

“For example, some people value the birds which visit the lake, and those people's valuation of the birds — for example, how much money they would be willing and able to pay to help preserve the bird's habitat in Utah — counts as an economic value,” Lozada said.

Millions of birds rely on the Great Salt Lake as part of their migratory patterns. 

Bob Barrett, manager of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, said humans’ toll on the Great Salt Lake is troubling, from diversions to climate change that could mean more drought in the future.

“Mother Nature has had a chance to have a hand in how these lake levels either rise or fall, and provide quality habitat around the lake. It’s always evolved that way,” he said. “But as we see dramatic changes that are beyond the capability of Mother Nature to adjust to … that’s when you see these big effects.”

Whether it’s securing a water supply for future generations or helping an ecosystem endure, Barrett said it’s important for Utahns to keep the Great Salt Lake in mind.

“We depend on Mother Nature to deliver, and we derive this huge economic return,” he said. “We should be very, very careful in how we move forward in mucking such a good relationship … draining the lake off for other things.”

Another example is the toll bad air quality takes on the people who live here. Utah’s current bad air during inversion days is already called an economic hindrance, repelling businesses that might otherwise relocate to the state. (Ogden’s air quality reached third-worst in the country in February, according to the federal government’s Air Quality Index.)

And as more lakebed becomes exposed, toxic dust could exasperate the problem.


MORE: How bad is Utah’s bad air? 


“It also has wider non-business economic effects, such as a family's loss of companionship if a relative dies prematurely due to air pollution,” Lozada said. “I don't know what the magnitude of these non-business economic effects might be, unfortunately.”

And if dried-up lake dust blowing along the Wasatch Front becomes a chronic problem, Lozada said it’s likely Utah’s population will start to shrink, not grow.

He’s also skeptical about proposals to dam the Bear River and divert additional water away from the lake to meet demand.

Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Conservancy District, said he understands concerns associated with damming the Bear River.

“Our intentions are not to build water projects to the point that we’re having dire impacts to the lake system,” he said. “A lot of times water agencies get painted as advocates for big projects like the Bear River (development). This might sound odd, but last thing I want to do is build the Bear River project.”

But he said his district still has to meet the anticipated water needs as populations grow, and the Bear River project shouldn’t be a scapegoat in exchange for a much bigger, more complicated solution.

“Why is the Bear River project being the culprit of all things bad for the Great Salt Lake?” Flint said. “The lake is down over 11 feet, due to current diversions, mineral production and all of that combined.”

In addition to the water loss from agricultural and household use, mineral extraction salt ponds have evaporated another 1.4 feet out of the lake, according to the state study.

By contrast, the Bear River will only drop the lake another 8 inches, Flint said.

“Water conservation right now is a water development project to us,” Flint said. “If we get that per capita use down, that becomes water we can apply to future population growth.”

Weber Basin water users have managed to drop their water consumption by 18 percent in 15 years. Through those efforts, plans for the Bear River project have been pushed off. Flint doesn’t anticipate needing that water until 2045 or 2050.

“So we’ve made great strides,” Flint said. “Having said that, we don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of what we can save on the conservation side.”



Last fall, we did a series of stories about the Great Salt Lake and the ecosystems that depend on it. This is the next installment of that project. This time, we’re looking at how the lake affects the human economy and quality of life. Missed the first part? Explore the full project.


Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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