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Ogden mayoral hopefuls discuss potential policy related to the Great Salt Lake

By The Great Salt Lake Collaborative - | Sep 28, 2023
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Ruben Gyoeltsyan walks across a sand bar at the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake on Thursday, March 3, 2022, near Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers passed a $40 million proposal through the state Senate that would pay water rights holders to conserve and fund habitat restoration to prevent the lake from shrinking further.
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With the vast majority of ballots counted in the Ogden mayoral primary, Taylor Knuth is on track to be the top finisher with 1,997 votes, followed by Ben Nadolski with 1,829 votes. The two topped the field of seven contenders and will face off for the mayoral post in the November general election.
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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.

OGDEN -- The Great Salt Lake has long been an undeniable asset to the region.

However, this asset has been under threat. Between the ravages of climate change and increasing interception of source water, the lake has gone through a long period of shrinkage, despite a bit of a reprieve in 2023. Recently, the Great Salt Lake Collaborative posed 10 questions to Ogden mayoral candidates Taylor Knuth and Ben Nadolski about how their administrations will deal with the lake. Below are their responses as they were received.

1. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 represents most important and 1 is least), with the many city priorities you will face as mayor, where do you rank the Great Salt Lake and why?

Knuth: 10. The Great Salt Lake is a terminal body of water fed by three tributaries, one of which is the Weber River that runs through the heart of Ogden City. Ensuring the long-term success of the Lake should be an urgent priority for every municipality along the Wasatch Front, but should be especially prioritized with those entities responsible for these tributaries. To say that Ogden City's long-term economic and ecological success relies heavily on the water levels and overall health of the Lake would be a gross understatement. I believe saving the Great Salt Lake is a generational investment and any and all high-level decisions made in a Knuth administration would be filtered through this priority to ensure our best possible future for the residents and visitors of Ogden City.

Nadolski: I have been a natural resource professional and practitioner for the past 21-years, specifically in wildlife management and conservation. I supervise operations throughout all of northern Utah, including the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program (GSLEP). Our team collects and analyzes various environmental data from the lake and manages the brine shrimp population and its commercial harvest, and surveys and manages waterfowl and shorebird populations and their wetland habitats. The Great Salt Lake is THE number one priority issue in my work every day, and that will not change as Mayor. While I'd certainly have less influence over the day-to-day management of the wetlands and wildlife that inhabit the Lake, I'd also be in a unique position as a partner to every stakeholder, with real solutions to help fill the Great Salt Lake.

As Mayor the Great Salt Lake would continue to be my number 1 environmental priority and issue, so it would remain a 10 for me.

2. What's your plan for assisting in saving the Great Salt Lake -- what actions will you take to ensure more water makes it to the lake in the future?

Knuth: (Sale Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall) laid the policy groundwork for municipalities to donate treated storm and sewer water back to the Great Salt Lake. In 2020 alone, Ogden City was delivering ~18.4 million gallons of treated water a day, which consequently equates to ~6.8 billion gallons of wastewater a year, not including our storm refuse. A Knuth administration would donate our treated storm and sewer water back to the Great Salt Lake and more. This also includes the creation of a Sustainability Solution Center, in partnership with Weber State University. Such a center would aid in the conversion and enhancement of residential assets related to water delivery such as high-efficiency taps and toilets, as well as xeriscaping and water-tolerant lawns, services offered at low or no cost to residents. Additionally, much of Ogden water delivery systems are aged and beyond their useful life, with some elements exceeding 130 years in age. Our last bond, passed as a city and related to our infrastructure, was passed in 2008 for ~50 million dollars and accomplished a lot of capital improvement projects in our city. Within our first term, I would propose to the voters of Ogden City a municipal bond dedicated to improving city infrastructure, with a priority on our water infrastructure.

Nadolski: Ogden City is in a unique and powerful position to help fill the Great Salt Lake. Ogden City owns very senior and excess water rights that are intended to provide for future growth. The more water we conserve now, the more water we can send directly to the Great Salt Lake through water leasing tools recently approved by the legislature. We have a waterline that runs from our well field, all the way down the canyon and to our delivery systems in the city. That waterline is more than 100 years old and it leaks millions of gallons of water every day. A catastrophic failure is imminent and dangerous for our citizens. It's also wasteful of precious water that could be better used to help fill the lake. I will propose that we partner with the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the legislature and various non-profits to fund the replacement of the waterline, and use the water conserved through leakage, combined with leasing our excess water rights, to help fill the Great Salt Lake.

3. What actions have you taken in the past to help protect the lake?

Knuth: In my current role as Deputy Director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council, I lead our Capital City in an effort to receive $1,000,000 from Bloomberg Philanthropies, with some matching funds, to raise awareness about the importance, both economically and ecologically speaking, of the Great Salt Lake. Currently, Salt Lake City is a finalist to receive this funding. Should Salt Lake City receive these funds, a monumental public awareness campaign will be launched as soon as 2024, with public art and other creative endeavors being leveraged to maximize our impact. Personally speaking, I have invested in the xeriscaping of our property, the conversion of our taps to high-efficiency ones, and more.

Nadolski: I have spent 21-years as a natural resource professional. In that time I have partnered with countless water users, water managers, communities, non-profits and landowners on irrigation diversion optimization projects and river restoration projects that improved water quality. Those projects saved water and we coordinated leases that sent that water to the Great Salt Lake. I now supervise the team of professionals that continues to do that work every day. I was also a founding member of the Weber River Partnership, which is a non-profit that coordinates watershed-scale projects and actions that conserves water and helps fill the lake. For the past three years I have also supervised the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program.

4. How do you view the inland port projects and the impact it may have on the lake?

Knuth: As recently as August of 2023, Weber County Commissioners have laid the legal foundation for a Weber County inland port, similar to that of the Salt Lake Inland port currently under construction. This project is envisioned to be more than 6,000 acres, but will like be started on a 903-acre site located directly west of Ogden City; parcels which are presently owned by a private developer out of Arizona and are adjacent to crucial ecosystems that support the lake, especially the millions of migratory birds who rely on these habitats. While I support efforts to grow and enhance the economies of Weber County, especially Ogden City, we must do so in ways which guarantee the ecological success of the Great Salt Lake. A Knuth administration would not support a Weber County inland port which compromises the long-term success of the Great Salt Lake.

Nadolski: The proposed projects are in the conceptual phases right now, so there aren't any details to evaluate yet. I have a deep appreciation for what the local communities are trying to accomplish economically, and I also have a deep appreciation for the lake and its natural resources. The potential for serious impacts to the lake are very real, however. But there may also be potential for mitigation measures to minimize or even eliminate those impacts. I have a deep background in environmental impact analysis and now supervise the team of experts that will be formally analyzing these projects. That work cannot begin in earnest until more details become available, but I have been involved in countless compensatory mitigation projects that have minimized and even eliminated the impacts of developments like these. If given the chance and a seat at the table, we can evaluate the proposed projects and provide mitigation measures that will protect the lake and its natural resources. I have done it countless times before, and I'm certain we can do it here.

5. What do you want residents under your watch to do to help save the lake?

Knuth: As mentioned earlier, there are many personal decisions that can contribute to the success of the Great Salt Lake, but many Ogdenites lack sufficient resources to accomplish some of these personal decisions. A Sustainability Solutions Center would lead our residents towards accomplishing these goals. I also believe that Ogden City-owned assets can and should lead the way and set a good example for residents in how to go about these changes. A Knuth administration would commit to a phased conversion of water delivery systems within city-owned buildings that prioritize efficiency and minimize waste. We would also focus on converting underutilized greenspace to xeriscaping and utilized green space to (water-wise) turf or lawn.

Nadolski: Residents can join me in using less water on their lawns, for starters. They can also take advantage of our conservation incentive program, which I helped draft and pass, that reimburses residents for converting their park strip from grass to appropriate drought tolerant landscapes. They can also support my proposals to expand that program to include non-park strip sod areas. Finally, the lake is often a distant and unrecognized issue for many. Our residents can take the time to learn more about the lake. When they do, I am confident they will recognize its importance to their daily lives and will be more willing to support its protection and conservation.

6. What should the state and federal government do to help save the lake?

Knuth: We have witnessed great success from the state on their actions to save the Great Salt Lake, including the appointment of a new Lake Coordinator, Brian Steed. A Knuth administration would engage in good faith with our partners at the county and state, as well as other municipalities, to ensure the lake's success. I would support a state-led effort to increase efficiencies of industries who consume high amounts of water, for example agricultural and livestock industries. I would also be supportive of a state-led effort to create new, or enhance existing, conservation areas of the Great Salt Lake and ensure new development does not further encroach on this valuable ecosystem.

Nadolski: The state is and should continue to be the primary management authority for the lake, with help and support from our federal partners. The state has taken considerable steps to protect the lake and with the support of the legislature, have established a $40-million trust, invested $200-million for water conservation tools, and $70-million in agricultural optimization tools. I support the state in its efforts to lead in these voluntary, inventive-based approaches to community conservation. I have participated in those efforts personally and professionally, and have experienced the impacts and differences we are making in those programs.

7. Because treated wastewater is an important source of water to Great Salt Lake, in some cases, water recycling and water conservation methods that are effective elsewhere can actually decrease the flow of water to the lake. What initiatives do you envision for encouraging sustainable water use while also protecting the supply of water to Great Salt Lake?

Knuth: Addressed above.

Nadolski: Water that is conserved upstream in the watershed can be used to fill our storage reservoirs and aquifers. When those systems are full then the excess run-off can be diverted directly to the lake each spring. Those conservation measures also reduce the demands on those stored resources during non run-off periods, thus allowing opportunities to lease those savings for delivery directly to the lake using funds set aside by the legislature. Over time the cumulative effects of those conservation measures can have downstream benefits that help fill the lake. Simultaneously, the wastewater treatment plants would be forced to make millions of dollars in treatment infrastructure to recycle their wastewater for human uses. Or, they can save that money and send their treated effluent directly to the lake using the treatment systems they already have. That is what we did in partnership with the North Davis Sewer District. In doing so, we helped fill the lake and also helped achieve water quality standards set by the Utah Division of Environmental Quality by reducing harmful algal blooms. These are win-win and voluntary and incentive-based solutions that work when we partner with one another.

8. How would the depletion of the Great Salt Lake affect the future of your city?

Knuth: The Utah Division of Water Resources estimates that the Great Salt Lake's economic impact is in excess of 1.32 billion dollars and accounts for over 7,706 jobs along the Wasatch Front. The well-documented scientific phenomena of the "Lake Effect" is also critical to the success of Ogden City as a tourist destination to world-class ski resorts like Snow Basin, Powder Mountain, and Nordic Valley. Not only economically would our city suffer greatly, but the dried lake bed would decimate our air as harmful toxins like arsenic are blown in the wind, which would undoubtedly result in thousands of Ogden residents leaving our city as our quality of life greatly declines.

Nadolski: A drying Great Salt Lake would be an environmental, economic and human health disaster. The first and most immediate impact would be to our air quality. Fugitive dust from the lake is filled with harmful toxins including arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals that can cause lung impairments. The lake is also a globally important shorebird and waterfowl stopover that would have global ecological consequences if lost. Finally, the resources extracted from the lake are critical for worldwide supplies. For example, the brine shrimp industry is a multi-billion dollar global industry that provides feed for half of the world's seafood. The Brine Shrimp Cooperative is located in Ogden, so the economic impacts are global and local.

9. What does sustainable development mean to you, and what do you see as your role in ensuring that future development is sustainable?

Knuth: As a full-time economic development professional of nearly 3 years, and an individual who has dedicated a decade long to public service, broadly speaking, I firmly believe that future development of our city can and should be sustainable. Further, sustainability for our natural ecosystems does not have to come at the expense of our built environment and vice versa. Sustainable development is development that prioritizes our limited natural resources and is realized with outcomes that are considerate of future generations of our community. As Mayor, a Knuth administration would make decisions with future generations and the preservation of their quality of life in our city and state as a priority.

Nadolski: Sustainable development means building our community in a manner that meets the needs of our citizens today, but without negatively impacting the needs of our citizens in the future. Within the context of the Great Salt Lake, we need to make sure we are developing and operating our city in a manner that conserves enough water to keep the lake filled, its lakebed inundated and its natural resources healthy and sustainable in perpetuity.

10. What is your personal relationship/history to the Great Salt Lake?

Knuth: On my mom's side, I am a fifth-generation Utahn, on my dad's, a second-generation Mexican-American. With the exception of a brief internship out of the state, I have always lived within a 20-minute-drive of the Lake. I have fond memories of the Great Salt Lake. One particularly striking memory is when my great grandmother came to Utah for the first time in her late 90s. One of her "bucket list items" was to visit the Lake, a request I recall being odd at the time, but now understand perfectly. During her visit, we drove out to Antelope Island, a spot I frequented growing up, especially during the annual Bison Roundup. Even today, I can remember in great detail the visual of my great grandmother standing in awe at the natural beauty of the Lake as we viewed her over a herd of bison with tears streaming down her face. A woman who had seen the world, marveled at the unique beauty of a lake I took for granted as a kid. As the Great Salt Lake was once a territory of Mexico, and the ancestral homelands of several Indigenous peoples of Utah, I also feel a generational connection to the land through my own familial lineage.

To lose the Great Salt Lake would devastate so much of our ecosystem, my own family memories, and any future generations' ability to forge such a relationship with our environment. We must do everything in our power to preserve and protect this invaluable natural wonder.

Nadolski: My family and I routinely recreate in and around the lake, and I have spent my entire career in natural resource management working on issues in and around the Great Salt Lake. I have been involved in the management of its wetlands, spent countless hours on airboats exploring and managing the lake, have trapped and banded geese, counted and surveyed shorebirds, completed aerial surveys from fixed-wing aircraft, taken legislators, dignitaries and partners on flights and airboat tours to educate them on practical policy needs, secured funding for research, management and infrastructure investments, coordinated grants and partnerships to improve lake ecology, guided key decisions regarding brine shrimp management, removed invasive phragmites to increase water supply in the lake, and coordinated water optimization projects with water managers, just to name a few. With all that I have done in my life, our work is nowhere near complete. But with the incredible support of the public, our management agencies and the Utah Legislature, the timing is perfect for us to make positive and lasting impacts.

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