SALT LAKE CITY — As the Great Salt Lake ebbs, hastened by decades of upstream water consumption, would-be protectors are prodding the state to marshal political will for a difficult rescue.
At stake are the lake’s $1.3 billion annual economic impact, fragile wetland habitat for millions of waterfowl and shorebirds, and a future of unhealthy dust storms fueled by the exposed lake bed.
Nothing less than Utahns’ quality of life is in the balance if the lake shrinks away, said Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, sponsor of a resolution intended to increase political and social awareness of what appears to be an inexorable decline.
“We as a state need to say, hey, it’s important to preserve the lake, it’s important to preserve our water supplies,” Hawkes told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee, which approved his HCR 10 on Tuesday.
“But how to do that is enormously complicated,” he said. “I can’t think of a more difficult challenge out there as our state grows, to still find ways to make sure we don’t lose this resource that’s important to our quality of life and our economy and everything else.”
While the lake level has fluctuated during alternating drought and flood periods since the Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, water diversions over time have lowered the lake by 11 feet and sapped its volume by 48 percent, according to a 2016 study at Utah State University.
The lake level was measured at 4,192.4 feet above sea level as of Thursday afternoon, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The previous lowest point in modern times was 4,191 feet in 1963, compared to the high level of 4,210.8 feet in 1987, as reported by the Utah Climate Center in Logan.
The Bear, Weber and Jordan river drainages feed the lake, but upstream use due to population growth divert those natural flows.
Despite water conservation that has cut per capita use by 18 percent, additional growth and the potential development of dams on the Bear River will crimp flows to the lake even more.
Hawkes pointed to the environmental catastrophes of other major terminal saline lakes around the world, including Asia’s Aral Sea, Lake Urmia in Iran and Owens Lake in Northern California.
Industries, fisheries, wetlands and biodiversity systems were devastated and public health suffered from dust-caused respiratory illnesses.
“People want the water and need the water for other uses,” Hawkes said. “They divert it and this is what happens.”
How can Great Salt Lake be saved?
“Number one, stop taking water out of the headwaters,” Steve Erickson, a Utah Audubon Council lobbyist, said in an interview. “You have to be very careful how much you take.”
Continued municipal and industrial conservation efforts, plus future secondary water metering, will help, Erickson said.
Water banking, in which agricultural water users don’t lose their annual allotments if they don’t use it all, also will trim consumption, he said.
PUBLIC AWARENESS KINDLED?
The lake’s sustained downward trend “is beginning to penetrate the public consciousness,” Erickson added.
Those who live downwind of the lake — essentially most of the Wasatch Front — will be vulnerable to the dust storms and respiratory problems.
“People maybe don’t care about birds, and that’s OK,” Erickson said, “but when it becomes an issue that impacts public health on a much broader scale ...”
HCR 10 is a non-binding resolution, “but it is designed to lay the groundwork for some serious policy initiatives that would protect the waters of the Great Salt Lake and the wildlife that depends on it,” Erickson said.
The resolution says the Legislature and the Governor’s Office agree the state needs an overall policy “that supports effective allocation and administration of water flow to Great Salt Lake to maintain or increase lake levels, while appropriately balancing economic, social, and environmental needs.”
The state departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality would lead the effort, the resolution says.
‘GIANT, STINKING MUD HOLE’
Hawkes, an attorney, said his eyes were opened when he did work for the Utah Brine Shrimp Cooperative, which represents a major lake industry.
“Before I took the job I honestly thought that any drop of water that made it to the Great Salt Lake was wasted, because it’s salty and once it’s down there you can’t use it,” he said.
He also recalled a conversation with a Facebook friend who derided the lake as “a giant, stinking mud hole.”
“The public perceptions are casual indifference, if you notice it at all,” he said.
“But the fate of the Great Salt Lake is not abstract. The reality is that around the world we are losing our terminal lakes.”