By Lindsay Whitehurst
The Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY » The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi is shrinking past its lowest levels in recorded history, raising fears about toxic dust, ecological collapse and economic consequences. But the Great Salt Lake may have some new allies: conservative Republican lawmakers.
The new burst of energy from the GOP-dominated state government comes after lake levels recently hit a low point during a regional megadrought. Water has been diverted from the lake for years to supply homes and crops in Utah. The nation’s fastestgrowing state is also one of the driest, with some of the highest domestic water use.
This year could see big investment in the lake, which has long been an afterthought, with Gov. Spencer Cox proposing spending $46 million and the powerful House speaker throwing his weight behind the issue.
But some worry that the ideas advancing so far at the Legislature don’t go far enough to halt the slow-motion ecological disaster.
One proposal would tackle water use in homes and businesses, by measuring outdoor water that’s considered some of the country’s cheapest. Another would pay farmers for sharing their water downstream, and a third would direct money from mineral-extraction royalties to benefit the lake.
“I long took for granted the lake. It’s always been there, and I’ve assumed it always would be there,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson at a summit he convened on the issue. But learning about the lake’s precarious position this summer left him terrified. “The Great Salt Lake is in trouble. ... We have to do something.”
The shrinking of the lake poses serious risks to millions of migrating birds and a lake-based economy that’s worth an estimated $1.3 billion in mineral extraction, brine shrimp and recreation. Health risks exist, too: The massive dry lakebed could send arsenic-laced dust into the air that millions breathe.
“The Great Salt Lake needs some leaps to be saved. It’s not going to do it with baby steps,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council.
The lake took a pummeling last year, with especially devastating effects on its microbialites, the Great Salt Lake’s version of a coral reef. The mushroom-like structures are formed by furry, deep green mats of microbes, which are the base of the lake’s food chain and main sustenance for brine shrimp.
The shrimp support a multimillion-dollar industry supplying food for fish farms and nourish millions of migrating birds whose massive flocks can show up on radar. The lake is also the nation’s biggest source of magnesium and soon could provide lithium, a key mineral for renewable energy batteries.
But last year the lake matched a 170-year record low and kept dropping, hitting a new low of 4,190.2 feet in October.
In some ways, the fix is simple: More water needs to flow into the lake. But that’s no small task in the state that grew by 18.4% over the past decade, to nearly 3.28 million people. And about 200,000 homes and businesses pay a flat fee for an entire season of irrigation water.
GOP Utah Rep. Tim Hawkes argues that even conserving 20% through awareness would dramatically increase the chances that the lake stays healthy.
This year is shaping up to be a wetter year than 2021, but that doesn’t immediately translate to more water for the lake. First comes replenishing drinking water supplies. Then comes the lake.
And homes and businesses aren’t the only ones that need moisture. About 65% of the water on the Great Salt Lake watershed goes to agriculture. Farmers have a right to that water, and under historic laws they could lose the water they don’t use.
“Right now, there’s actually a disincentive for agriculture to conserve, or optimize, the water they’re using,” said Republican Rep. Joel Ferry.
He’s sponsoring legislation that would let farmers get paid for water they let flow to the Great Salt Lake and other bodies.
Experts estimate a drying Great Salt Lake could cost Utah more than $2 billion every year.
“There’s a real question about what happens next. Are we going to break through some critical thresholds here in the next little bit if we continue to go lower?” Hawkes said. “If we act now and we are thoughtful about it ... there’s a good chance we can keep the lake healthy and happy — and us along with it.”