SALT LAKE CITY -- A massive dust storm Tuesday turned Top of Utah gray, raised particulate pollution and served as a coincidental introduction for this year's Great Salt Lake Issues Forum.
A lot of that dust came from mud flats around Antelope Island, exposed because Great Salt Lake is low as a result of population growth and a decade of intermittent drought.
The fate of the lake, and how the lake affects people living on the Wasatch Front, was the reason for the three-day Issues Forum, hosted by Friends of the Great Salt Lake.
Dozens of weather scientists, water managers, state wildlife officials and lake advocates focused on what Jodi Gardberg, Great Salt Lake Watershed coordinator at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, called "a unique ecological gift that has to be preserved."
The lake is under assault from climate change, drought, population growth and overuse.
At the same time, it is home to critical wildlife habitat, the world's largest brine shrimp fishery and major manufacturing facilities, and is a major Utah tourism draw.
While presenting the results of sometimes years of study, the speakers said over and over that they were just beginning.
For example, Clay Perschon, founder of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' Great Salt Lake Ecosystem program set up in 1996 to manage shrimp and avian life on the lake, said when he looked for research to guide his efforts, "the short of it was, there just hadn't been (research). So much of the work we had to invent as we go."
He showed a slide with dozens of chemicals found in the lake's dried bed. Some were from farm runoff, some from sewage effluent, some from industrial discharges.
Nobody knows how many of those chemicals become airborne when the wind blows, he said. "It is only careful analysis of those impacts that will allow us to do things and not cut our own throats."
Jim Steenburgh, chairman of the University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences, said climate change will affect the snow and rain that fills the lake, but beyond knowing that there will be more warm years, fewer cold years, earlier spring runoffs and drier summers, there is no way to say how big the changes will be.
"We're pretty confident in warming, but how warm is subject to investigation," he said.
Greenhouse gases, air pollution, even dust, all change how much snow falls and how quickly it melts, he said, and those still need more study.
He warned to be wary of averages when trying to manage the lake.
Utah weather is made up of extremes, he said, "and we spend too much time thinking about those averages when we should be thinking about these ups and downs."
He called for a wide-ranging scientific program to study the lake and its whole drainage, linking how all factors that affect the lake relate to each other. Nothing like that is being done now, he said.
"There's a few of us that pick away at it when we can, but we need a system."
One aspect of that system is water use by cities along the Wasatch Front.
Eric Klotz, an engineer in the Division of Water Resources, manages the state's water conservation and education program.
He said the Wasatch Front gets an average of 1 million acre-feet of water a year. The problem is that, by 2050, when the population will have doubled, demand for municipal and industrial use will be 1.6 million acre-feet.
Without new water, he said, demand will exceed supply by about 2020.
Utah's solution includes conservation. By reducing demand 25 percent, 400,000 acre-feet can be saved.
The 200,000 acre-feet still needed would be where a proposal to divert water from the Bear River comes in, he said. Lake advocates fear that diversion will cause Great Salt Lake to dry up even more.
Klotz said diverting Bear River water might not hurt the lake as much as feared. An estimated 95 percent of water that homes and industries divert from rivers for sewer use, for example, ends up being treated and put in the lake anyway.
Half of all agricultural water returns to the lake. When areas become more urbanized, more water runs off streets and roofs into storm drains.
"As you convert fields to Home Depots, the lake gains 82 percent from those facilities," he said.
Several lake advocates took issue with Klotz's assurances.
Lynn de Freitas, director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, said she is worried about Utah's wild weather swings that can cause water supplies to plummet in a year.
Klotz painted "a rosy picture," she said, "and I just have a hard time swallowing it. With these disparities, how is the state going to consider the best step forward?"
Gardberg said Utah is setting up a lake management council to get the 11 state agencies and five federal agencies that each manage some aspect of the lake to look at questions together.
In 2008, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman established a planning committee for the council. The Legislature approved a bill for that council this year, and steps are under way to draw up a lake management plan, using input from all five counties around the lake.
"What the council came out with is, we all work within our own silo," Gardberg said, echoing Steenburgh, and went on to say the council "plans to look at the lake as a whole. To look at it piecemeal doesn't look at the interconnectedness. The birds feed on the brine shrimp. It's all interconnected."