Utah scrambles to save the Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake has fallen to dangerously low levels. Utah has just a few years to save it.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News, via AP, Pool, File)

Utah legislators scrambling to save the Great Salt Lake are debating spending half a billion dollars to bolster conservation efforts, as water levels fall to dangerous levels and salinity levels rise.

Gov. Spencer Cox (R) has asked lawmakers to appropriate almost $133 million to spend on the Great Salt Lake, along with $100 million in payments to farmers who would agree not to grow water-intensive crops. Cox’s budget includes $213 million for an “agriculture optimization” program incentivizing farmers to adopt new water-saving technologies to grow crops.

In the legislature, House Majority Leader Mike Schultz (R) introduced legislation this week that would spend $40 million on a strategic plan to save the lake, money that could go toward purchasing or leasing water rights and conservation initiatives.

At the heart of Schultz’s legislation is a new commissioner who would be tasked with overseeing the survival of the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere — a job that is becoming more difficult with each passing season of drought.

Over the last 40 years, the lake’s level has dropped, parched by drought and overconsumption. The lake hit its record low in November, at 4,188 feet above sea level. Today, the lake stands at 4,190 feet, according to the latest data from the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The Great Salt Lake in 2000 (Photo courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

Some experts believe the lake could be completely dry within five years.

That, in turn, threatens the future of one of the fastest-growing states in America. A dry lakebed can release toxic plumes, which at times in recent years has made the air quality along the Wasatch Front the worst in the nation.

In an interview, Schultz said naming a single commissioner would consolidate a conservation effort that has been spread too thin among too many agencies.

“Right now we have, actually, 12 different agencies that have some sort of regulation or something to do with the lake,” Schultz said. “And so this puts the commissioner over the lake as a whole to understand what’s going on, oversees everything and, like the quarterback, helps guide and direct all the different agencies that have some authority over the lake to accomplish the ultimate goal of getting water to the lake and so that’s the main purpose of this, this bill.”

Utah’s legislature has just two weeks left in what has been a busy session already. Schultz said he expects his bill, which has Cox’s support, to make it through both the House and Senate before session comes to a close — if for no other reason that lawmakers now realize their time to act is running out.

The Great Salt Lake in 2020 (Photo courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

The lake’s low water levels have caused an increase in salinity, threatening the ecosystem and raising the concerns of scientists and lawmakers alike. Higher salinity levels could impact a brine shrimp harvest, which has a cascading effect through the ecosystem, including on migratory birds that feed on the shrimp.

“Not only is the level of the lake low, but salinity levels in the Great Salt Lake this summer reached a scary, scary number that makes us all really, really nervous,” Schultz said.

Schultz said he was cautiously optimistic that the legislature would provide the $500 million that Cox requested for water management and conservation.

“It’ll be around that number, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, it just kind of depends,” Schultz said.

“One of the long-term solutions to solving our problem is figuring out how to get more water into this basin,” Schultz said. “There are two or three options that are out there that are being talked about and one of them … is a pipeline. Is it serious? We don’t know the answer to that yet. We are looking at it.”