LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Utah conservationists are describing efforts to bring water levels back up in the Great Salt Lake as “completely inadequate,” mounting a campaign to stop diversions that are strangling the largest remaining wetland ecosystem in the American West.
The “4,200 Project” was announced Wednesday by the Utah Rivers Council, aimed at restoring the lake’s surface to that level (4,200 feet above sea level). Zach Frankel, the council’s executive director, said, “Utah simply is not acting fast enough.”
While Las Vegans lamented the declining water levels at Lake Mead during the 23-year drought, Salt Lake City’s attention has been fixed on the Great Salt Lake. The two lakes get their water from different sources, with most of the water for the Great Salt Lake coming from the Bear, Jordan and Weber rivers, fed by runoff from the Uintah mountain range. But more water is being diverted for agriculture and residential development. The lake dropped to a record low 4,188.5 feet in 2022, but grew to 4,194 feet earlier this year on the strength of heavy snows in the Uintahs. It has dropped 2 feet since then.
Frankel expects the lake to drop to a new record low next year unless there’s another wet winter.
“We in Utah need to get serious about repaying the debt at the Great Salt Lake, and if we don’t we will see billions of dollars in mitigation costs to address the air quality problems at the Great Salt Lake from lakebed dust that we’ll be breathing,” Frankel said.
A 2022 article in the Salt Lake Tribune compared the problem to Owens Lake in California, acknowledged as the biggest source of dust (PM10 emissions) in the U.S. That has led to big problems affecting respiratory health. The article asks, is this the Great Salt Lake’s future?
The 4,200 Project lists 12 policy proposals to get to the goal. But political and financial support is a question mark. Utah Republican Gov. Spencer Cox has been reluctant to sign onto a water level goal, and Frankel said support has mostly come from Democrats.
The lake is actually divided in two, separated by a rail line causeway. Water from the south arm of the lake is slightly higher, draining slowly to the north arm under a bridge.
Agriculture accounts for the largest use of water diverted before it gets to the Great Salt Lake, one of the goals of the 4,200 project is to optimize the return of water from farms to the lake.
But water conservation in Las Vegas and around the nation has provided examples that Utah can learn from. Political leaders bristle at the comparisons and challenge the numbers, but reports consistently put Utah near the top of lists of per capita water consumption. In a 2020 report, the state put potable and secondary water usage at 223 gallons per person per day. Las Vegas is around 110 gallons, and aiming to go lower.
Tax structures make water cheap in Utah, another factor in why use isn’t changing fast enough.
Frankel sees the high usage and cheap prices as opportunities to change behavior.
The National Audubon Society estimates that the lake was reduced to half its normal volume when levels dropped last year. Audubon offers extensive information on the habitat and birds found at the lake.
“The Great Salt Lake is the largest remaining wetland ecosystem in the entire American West, and it is entrusted to Utahns by all Americans who rely on it providing habitat for hundreds of species of migratory birds coming from every country in South and Central America,” Frankel said. “We simply must make sure that this wetland ecosystem can survive for future generations.”