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Levee restoration in Ogden Bay is essential to preserving Great Salt Lake

By Erin Lewis - Utah Public Radio | Apr 27, 2023
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Rich Hansen stepped off the airboat in front of the construction actively occurring on the levee. The left side of the levee has been filled in with rocks, brought in by truck. The right side has not been restored yet as they are working in that direction.
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Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Editor's note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake -- and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

Northern Utah's rivers provide a majority of the water flowing into the Great Salt Lake and surrounding wetlands. This inflow is an essential water source for much of the wildlife in the area, but prior to this year's record-breaking snowfall, these inflows have been steadily decreasing.

The Weber River, one of the major water contributors to Great Salt Lake, flows into the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area, feeding the wetlands and lake further down. The water is controlled by means of a number of levees/dikes, canals and water-control structures.

Rich Hansen is the property manager of Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area.

"If this project wasn't being done, with the flows we're experiencing, the dike would wash out, and managers would lose all control of the water to Ogden Bay. We would have thousands of acres go dry later in the summer," said Hansen.

Ducks Unlimited is raising funds in their Great Salt Lake Initiative to help bring water back to Great Salt Lake's receding shores. Their focus this year is repairing some of those water structures.

The East Levee in particular plays a major role in the water flow and ecosystem maintenance in the area, and has eroded significantly since its build in the 1930s. Just under a third of the East Levee was fixed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in 2020, but much remains. Ducks Unlimited has actively been adding rock to the levee to restore its footprint.

"Having this dike in place is important because it allows managers to move water through all 19,000 acres of Occupy Waterfowl Management Area, and that is important to the hundreds of thousands of birds, shorebirds or waterfowl on both the spring and fall migrations. And we also are really important area for nesting," Hansen explained.

The Great Salt Lake area is a particularly important ecosystem for migrating birds, as it serves as a stopover point to refuel during migration between breeding and wintering grounds. The diversity of productive ecosystems, including emergent marshes, hypersaline strata and playa mudflats creates excellent habitat for many bird species.

Controlled movement of water through the wetland area is essential to maintaining this diverse array of habitats, as it contributes to invasive species control and protects the existing infrastructure in the wetland.

Coryna Hebert is the Utah biologist for Ducks Unlimited.

"We have significantly more issues with invasive species, especially Phragmites. Phragmites displaces all of the native vegetation, which completely decimates wildlife habitat. It also uses a lot more water than native plants. So if we don't have tight water control, you basically lose the whole diversity of habitats," explained Hebert.

Fast-flowing runoff from this year's immense snowpack is already impacting Great Salt Lake wetlands, making levee repairs critical to prevent further damage to water control structures.

Today, the area is inundated with water from this year's runoff.

"This time last year there were a lot of our ponds out here that weren't even full yet, because we just didn't have the water to fill. And now we don't have all the dry spots on top of that. So, this is our parking lot that people park in all fall long -- so, completely underwater and it's actually flowing if you look at it. Just yesterday, this was dry," Hansen said.

While this winter has brought much needed precipitation and an over 200% average snowpack, it is not likely to save the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

"The immediate response across the landscape of the birds using these habitats is so incredible and so visible when you come out here and see thousands of birds and the river flowing at 3,700 CFS, but I think we know that it's not enough to save the Great Salt Lake," Hebert said. "It buys us a little bit extra time to implement some of these measures that we need to start saving water and reversing the slow trend of the lake declining every year."

Years of drought have significantly impacted Great Salt Lake water levels and the species that rely on this unique ecosystem. While a high precipitation year is extremely good for the ecosystem, it is going to take diligence and time to protect the area.

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