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How Utah’s new ‘plan for the plan’ aims to help save the Great Salt Lake

By Carter Williams - KSL.com | Dec 11, 2023
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Snowpack on the mountains above Ogden and the Great Salt Lake on May 9. Utah water managers are working on a plan to better understand and manage water in the Great Salt Lake Basin, which can help get water to the struggling lake.
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A family walks in the water at Great Salt Lake State Park in Magna on Oct. 6.
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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.

SALT LAKE CITY — Candice Hasenyager likens the Great Salt Lake to one giant puzzle.

It exists because the Bear, Jordan and Weber rivers all dump into it, as well as several other smaller tributaries. There are even more rivers and streams that flow into these sources, all of which are also included within the entire Great Salt Lake Basin.

This means that solving the lake’s decline in recent decades requires not just an examination of the lake, but all of the pieces that complete the big picture, she explained.

“We know a lot about the water supply and the uses, but then there are some things we don’t know as much about, especially about how the systems maybe aren’t always connected,” said Hasenyager, the director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. “We think there are some really important pieces we need to fill in.”

This is what Utah’s new Great Salt Lake Basin Integrated Plan seeks to accomplish. It’s essentially meant to provide state leaders with a guide on how to complete the Great Salt Lake puzzle by listing all the knowns and solving the remaining unknowns regarding the relationship between the lake and its tributaries.

It may help guide leaders in future policies related to sending water to the lake, which hit an all-time low in 2022 and remains several feet below the minimum healthy levels needed for Utah communities to avoid severe environmental consequences. Officials recently published a draft version of its “work plan” portion of the document, and it’s currently in the middle of a public comment period that ends on Jan. 8.

“This is basically the plan for the plan. It sounds kind of crazy, but I think it’s a good way to wrap our head around the enormousness of this project,” said Laura Vernon, the division’s Great Salt Lake Basin planner, during an open house discussion about the plan that water officials held Thursday evening.

The project also involves the Office of the Great Salt Lake Commissioner and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, tacking onto other efforts being done for the lake.

Once complete, division officials will move into a second phase that will provide Utah leaders with a list of recommended actions on how to best manage the basin. That could happen as early as 2026.

“This project is not going to happen overnight. It’s so large and complex, we’re going to need some time,” Vernon added. “We wish we had started on this effort several years ago, but we’re here now and we’re ready to get to work.”

What the plan does

Work on the plan began last year after the Utah Legislature passed a bill that required the Utah Division of Water Resources to develop a plan. Combined, the division received about $8.1 million from state and federal leaders to develop the Great Salt Lake Basin Integrated Plan after receiving additional money from the Bureau of Reclamation.

The initial work settled on what Utah should strive for moving forward, which is a healthy Great Salt Lake along with a “resilient water supply” for those who rely on the lake’s tributaries for water. These include farmers, ranchers and mineral extraction companies, as well as the millions of residents who live in communities within the basin.

The division also identified the challenges in getting there, starting with the actual water supply. The Great Salt Lake’s decline is widely attributed to overconsumption, which has been exacerbated by drought conditions. There simply hasn’t been enough water to get to the lake, causing it to drop the way it has.

But simply letting water flow into the lake has separate social challenges. It requires almost every water-using entity to agree to reduce their water consumption, which can be difficult.

“We have a lot of people, and people often think in different ways — maybe not everyone agrees,” Hasenyager said.

Officials started tackling this challenge by doing a “situational assessment,” Vernon said. This was done by collecting the thoughts and concerns various groups had about the issue to outline where things stand now. They also worked with government agencies to figure out what is feasible.

The work going forward will focus on identifying different solutions and scenarios that may help Utahns be more efficient with their water and help the Great Salt Lake, and the tradeoffs of every idea. Vernon said this will include making “water budgets” for all of the rivers that provide “apples to apples data” for all of the rivers that leaders can use in making water decisions based on future water situations.

“This scenario planning will help us understand water supplies and shortages as we move forward,” she said.

Working across the board

Experts from various fields, who attended a roundtable discussion Thursday, agreed that solving the Great Salt Lake’s decline requires collaboration across all water users. Getting there is also very much like a puzzle, though.

When water goes to one use or industry, it’s taken away from another, said Tim Hawkes, general counsel for the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative. Generally speaking, this is also why water began to fail to make it to the lake — the endpoint for all of the water sources.

“If you have any new use within the basin … it has to take that water from something else,” Hawkes said. “There’s no free water out there.”

This is why he believes it’s important to find ways for all water users to work together to find a healthy balance that allows for enough water for residents, food production and various industries, while also getting water to the lake.

Tim Davis, the deputy Great Salt Lake Commissioner, says the Great Salt Lake Basin Integrated Plan matters for this reason. It won’t change water laws or anything of that nature, but he believes it will help state leaders and water managers reach their ultimate goal.

Voluntary efforts are also already underway as the plan is crafted. Marcelle Shoop, the saline lakes program director for the National Audubon Society, said the Great Salt Lake Trust has already acquired at least 54,000 acre-feet over the past year in donations and leases that have gone to the lake.

Trevor Nielsen, general manager of the Bear River Canal Company, added that many farmers within the basin are optimizing their fields and that, too, may be able to send water to the lake. State lawmakers are now in the process of setting up ways to prove that’s the case. This is on top of cuts residents have made in water consumption, which has helped send water to the lake.

More state help could also be on the way. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox included a request for an additional $27.9 million toward ongoing improvements to the Great Salt Lake within his proposed $29.5 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year on Tuesday.

“Not one segment can do it,” Nielson said. “If we want to be successful, we’re going to have to work together in a planned fashion.”


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