May 04, 2016

Spring 2016: Great Salt Lake - The Gift That Keeps on Giving – Just Add Water

“ He (Farooq Azam) turned and looked up at the peak in front of him. “Once I do that (find out what is happening to the Chhota Shigri Glacier in the Himalayan peaks of Northern India) the next step will be to decide what has to be done. But these things don’t depend on science. They depend on politics.”

            -The End of Ice: Exploring a Himalayan glacier by Dexter Filkins, New Yorker Magazine, April 4, 2016

I was the last speaker of the day at a symposium hosted by Wayne Wurtsbaugh, Professor of Aquatic Ecology, Limnology, and Fish Ecology, Utah State University, and Steve Burian, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Utah. The symposium was organized to bring together scientists, academia, government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations from Lake Urmia, Iran, and Great Salt Lake, Utah to share recent findings, accomplishments, and challenges in their work on lake and wetland management.

Held at the Department of Environmental Quality this past March, the anticipated outcome is to “strengthen existing relationships and build new collaborations leading to a knowledge corridor supporting the sustainability of Great Salt Lake, Lake Urmia, and other wetlands and water resources in Iran and Utah. “

It was a rich and briny experience. But it was also an “Ah-ha” moment for me because I realized how much we – the Great Salt Lake home team – already have going for us and our Lake – politics aside. Along with the economic significance of $1.3B annually and 7,700 full time jobs that Great Salt Lake directly contributes to our state and the region, we have an indispensable toolbox to work with. We have an extraordinary endowment of science, which continues to inform our understanding about the system. We have effective collaboration that supports open communication and participation. And we have a growing recognition about the importance of integrating these abilities so that we can fulfill our responsibility to effectively sustain this hemispherically valuable ecosystem for future generations.

The takeaway from this shared experience is that at all costs we never want to find ourselves and Great Salt Lake in such dire straits as Lake Urmia. Located in an important agricultural rich area and once teeming with brine shrimp, bird populations, an impressive suite of vegetation and wildlife, and human recreational opportunities, the system is now a mere shadow of its former self. This is because of increases in agricultural lands, shifts to water intensive crops, and upstream water diversions compounded by drought. The lack of water lowered its volume and increased salinity levels that prohibited- brine shrimp from surviving. And dust storms from the exposed lakebed plague the 6.4 million people who live within the region.

Urmia is holding on by a thread of hope thanks to the conviction that was expressed by the visiting Iranians at this gather – politics aside.  But there’s so much that needs to be done to control dust, bring water back into the Lake and target selected parts of the system for restoration. This symposium was a testament to how small the world is and the universality that exists among all communities gifted with these unique systems and their unique values with water as the lifeblood of their existence.

For more of the story about Lake Urmia, you can read the piece by Dr. Ali Chavoshian, UNESCO Regional Director for Middle East in the Fall 2015 issue of this newsletter. But we don’t have to look to the other side of the world for similar examples that can provide us with important insights that hopefully, will prevent us from making the same mistakes for Great Salt Lake.

That’s why Phill Kiddoo is one of our keynote speakers at the 2016 GSL Issues Forum, May 11-13th at the University of Utah. Kiddoo is Air Pollution Control Officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. He’s part of a huge team, and long-term strategy to bring the Owens Valley Planning Area back into air quality compliance after it was designated a “serious non-attainment area” for PM10

particulate matter by the EPA in 1987. This designation was the result of water diversions of the sole tributary of Owens Lake (California) by Los Angeles. The exposed lakebed became the source of wind-blown dust events that gained national attention. 

Although steps are being taken to rectify the problem, they come with enormous costs. His presentation abstract makes this quite clear. “From 2000 through the 2017-18 budget year, the price tag to control PM10 emissions at Owens Lake is projected to surpass $2.1B. After construction is complete in 2017, projection of costs for ongoing operations and maintenance with purchasing of water from other sources to offset the 60,000 - 95,000 acre feet of water used on Owens Lake for dust mitigation, an additional $75,000,000 (75M) will be spent annually.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Benjamin Franklin

Another saline system operating in a relative state of life support is Salton Sea. Located in a closed desert basin in Riverside and Imperial counties in southern California, it is California’s largest lake and home to an impressive 424 species of migratory birds some of which are threatened. Much like Great Salt Lake - its location, food sources and wetland values make it a significant interior wetland site in North America for aquatic bird communities.  

In 2003, spurred by California’s “over use” of Colorado River water, a series of agreements among the State of California, the Federal Government and a group of California irrigation/water districts with rights to Colorado River water culminated in a legislative outcome called the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA). One of the provisions in the QSA included a transfer of agricultural irrigation water out of the Salton Sea basin. This would have an obvious affect on inflows to the Sea, reduce water levels, increase salinity in the system, and expose lakebed playa affecting air quality. Sound familiar? 

Associated legislation and proposed bonding support set the stage for a commitment from the state to restore the Salton Sea Ecosystem.  This prompted the creation of the Salton Sea Restoration Study and Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) to identify a preferred alternative to “restore important ecological functions of the Salton Sea that have existed for about 100 years.” Implementation of the preferred alternative rests with the California State Legislature. As of 2013, no decision had been made.

Recognizing the sense of urgency and to prepare for the work ahead, the California Department of Water Resources, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Geological Survey took the initiative to develop a Monitoring and Assessment Plan.  You’ll hear more about this at the Forum from Doug Barnum, U.S. Geological Survey, Salton Sea Science Office, and Bruce Wilcox, Asst. Secretary Salton Sea Policy, California Dept. of Natural Resources.

Here in the Great Salt Lake State, the Division of Water Resources has been mandated through the 1991 Bear River Development Act to develop 220,000 acre feet annually of the surface waters of the Bear and its tributaries. The rationale is two fold. One is to ensure that Utah exercises its fair share of water though the 1958 Bear River Compact amended in1980, that allocates water from the Bear among, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. The other is to prepare for the projected doubling of Utah’s population by 2050. The Division has a notion that Utah is running out of water and believes that mega water development projects that cost billions of dollars are the solution.

The Bear River provides the lion’s share of inflows into the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem. Millions of migratory birds rely on the system for resting, foraging, and nesting as a part of their hemispheric journey. Bear River Bay is designated an Important Bird Area by National Audubon because of the extraordinary bird use that occurs there. The Bay is also an important food source for the third largest breeding population of American White pelicans in North America.

The Office of the Utah Legislative Auditor General released a May 2015 report titled A Performance Audit of Projections of Utah’s Water Needs. The purpose of the report was to  “determine the reliability of the division’s projections of water demand and supply” and to “review options for extending Utah’s currently developed water supply.” The audit identified three important findings: reliability of water use data needs to improve, conservation and policy choices can reduce demand for water, and growth in future water supply should be reported to policy makers. These findings support arguments from economists, Lake industries, the conservation community and a growing public awareness that the Division must do a better job in accounting for existing water resources, and that developing the Bear River would imperil Great Salt Lake and its ecosystem services.

Nevertheless, insights from the audit were ignored by sponsors and supporters of SB 80 that was signed into law at the end of the 2016 Utah Legislative Session. SB 80 will allow a percentage of revenue generated for transportation to be earmarked for water infrastructure projects that includes developing the Bear. This maneuver flies in the face of fiscal responsibility in two ways. It creates a piggybank for  unnecessary expenditures and it jeopardizes the known economic generator of Great Salt Lake , its recreation and tourism, the brine shrimp industry, mineral extraction operations, its hemispheric habitat, and the health of Utah’s growing population.  Now that’s politics.

Walt Baker, Director of the Utah Division of Water Quality couldn’t have said it better, “It behooves us all to have a stake in the Lake.”

In saline,


What you can do:

Visit and read the legislative audit.

Contact us if you want to help us in our work to develop a campaign to oppose Bear River water development.

Help others understand what’s at risk for all of us if we continue to divert water from Great Salt Lake.