Fall 2014: The Writing on the Wall is Very Clear - Now is the Time to Commit to Comprehensive Watershed-Based Restoration and Protection for Great Salt Lake

Lake elevation on 11/12/2014 – 4,193.3’ asl

“We need holistic, collaborative and comprehensive water policy to protect our valued resources while facilitating smart growth.”

-Joe Havasi, Director, Natural Resources Compass Minerals

On October 23rd, FRIENDS celebrated 20 years of our collective work to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem and its future. It was also an opportunity for all of us to renew our commitment as a community to continue this work in honor of an ecosystem that not only encompasses a significant and unique hemispheric value for millions of migratory birds, but is also generous through its extraordinary economic attributes to the people of Utah as a Public Trust.

We live along the shores of something GREAT – Great Salt Lake.

And whether we perceive it or not

During its relatively short life as a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville

It has affected all of us.

From the ancients who lived in the Great Salt Lake wetlands

To the growing populations of today and tomorrow

The Lake affect continues to modify, influence and impress our lives

And the lives of millions of migratory birds and critters that rely on it.

From our “Call to Binoculars” in 1994, to our “Call for a Conservation Pool for the Lake” in 2010, we’ve definitely made a difference.  We’ve made tremendous strides forward in building awareness and appreciation of the Lake. We’ve created valuable tools and shaped important policies to address water quality protection. And we’re even getting a better handle on the “balancing act” of resource development while maintaining the ecological integrity of the system.

But we have to do more.

As a terminal lake that lies at the bottom of a 35,000 square mile drainage basin that has a growing population upstream in its watershed, the Lake is a mirror of who we are and how we behave. It’s a system that is heavily dependent upon inflows from snowpack, rivers and streams that will either “live or die” unless we make sure that it has enough water to perpetuate its impressive array of ecosystem services.

That’s why we focused our 2010 Great Salt Lake Issues Forum on the topic of establishing a conservation pool for the Lake. Knowing what we know about projected population growth, increased water diversions, water quality, predicted trends in climate change, increased industrialization on the Lake, and the sad fate of many other sister saline systems around the planet, these factors confirm that there is no time to waste. It’s a frightening prospect for water buffalos, upstream water rights holders, and even industry to agree that we should accommodate a fixed water elevation for the Lake. An elevation that not only raises all boats but keeps the ecological engine humming. But it’s the right thing to do.

To wit –the lowest recorded level on Great Salt Lake since 1850 was 4,191’ in 1963.  Currently, the Lake level is 4193.3’ - a mere 2.3’ above the record low. As a consequence, 70% of all boats in the Great Salt Lake Marina at the south shore are landlocked. Gunnison Island, which is a protected island and rookery for the 3rd largest breeding population of American White Pelicans in North America is no longer an island. It has a land bridge for easy predator access to this usually remote location. And Morton Salt has recently filed a request with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands- that oversees jurisdictional management for all sovereign lands including Great Salt Lake- to extend its existing intake canal by 6,800’ into the open water of Gilbert Bay, and deepen it by 10’. The Lake level is too low to maintain production of its signature salt and it wants to keep its 150 employees working. The trajectory of this canal would go right through a productive biostrome field which is an integral part of the food web for migratory birds. The list of impacts goes on while more straws are queuing up to make the same request.

How and when will we recognize our reality with Lake level?

A recent study by the US Geological Survey indicated that Utah’s average water use is the highest in the nation. For many years, Utah was second to Nevada but between 2005 – 2010, Nevada decreased its water use and Utah has become number one with a consumption level of 250 gallons of water use/person/day. (Lots of work to do here.) This recognition coupled with the Division of Water Resources’ perceived water needs by 2060 to serve a doubling population is driving the legislature, water conservancy districts, and land interests to justify sinking billions of taxpayer dollars into water development projects around the state. One of these projects includes developing the Bear River. When the Division and its consultants presented their vision to the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council at its October 29th meeting, they were somewhat boastful that less than a foot of water that would normally flow into the Lake would be lost. Clearly their sensitivity about the importance of Lake level was lacking.

Although we can and most certainly should debate the need, the impacts, and the cost of the proposed Bear River Water Development Project, there is no debate about the irreparable harm this project will have on the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem.

As you know, the regional economic significance of the Lake to the State of Utah is - $1.3B annually. As a sovereign land and a public trust resource – by law- Great Salt Lake must be managed in perpetuity by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands for the people of Utah. Adding to the many challenges the Division has in managing this complex system is the fluctuation in Lake level and how that affects its ecological character and endowment of ecosystem services.

Since the Bear River provides the lion’s share (60%) of inflows to the Lake, there is no question that this proposed upstream diversion of 220,000 acre feet of water will directly impact Lake levels.

One of the potential reservoir sites is Willard Bay. If this location is selected, it will not only impact the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge – a national wildlife refuge that was established in 1928 – but will also guarantee a direct loss of unique and valuable habitat of the Willard Spur, that in 2010 the Utah Water Quality Board authorized $1.2M to fund a 3- year scientific investigation to ensure the long term protection of the Spur’s aquatic life uses.

Are we willing to turn Great Salt Lake into an Owens Lake, the Aral Sea or Lake Urmia?

The fate of Great Salt Lake will be decided by our generation. That’s why we’re putting out another “Call.” This “Call” is for a comprehensive watershed based restoration and protection program for the Lake.  We propose that we – collectively - make a commitment – here and now - to focus our attention on the future of Great Salt Lake and how water fits into that picture. It’s time to unite our collective wisdom, our professional expertise and our will to achieve this necessary and timely undertaking for the Lake. We’ve got the numbers. We’ve got the know-how. We just have to do it.

In the words of Terry Tempest Williams “ The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”

Great Salt Lake is our gift to the future. Let’s do everything possible to perpetuate its contribution to our culture, our consciousness, and our community.

In saline,


What you can do:

Stay informed about this issue on our website: www.fogsl.org

And thanks for being there for the Lake.


Why We Care

  • We suggest that Great Salt Lake is a phenomenal asset to the state of Utah. Its mineral resources have been appreciated for almost 150 years. Brine shrimp are now appreciated because they are economically valuable. To only a very limited extent is the lake appreciated for tourism, for culture, for earth systems history and for education. 

    Scientific Review Committee, Comments to the Great Salt Lake Management Planning Team, 1999