December 20, 2017

On the Water Front of Great Salt Lake - Taking the Initiative to Identify Ways to Provide Water for the Lake is the Right Thing to Do

Executive Director’s Message – Summer 2017 

“Great Salt Lake is an important resource and provides so many ecological, biological, economic and recreational opportunities that we cannot ignore it much longer. Climate change and our current hydrologic cycle may be our new normal. If so, we will all have to learn to get by with less water and the necessity to allocate some water to environmental preservation must finally be given equal dignity in the appropriation process as diversionary rights that deplete the water supply. We clearly have the ability to do this, and the legal tools to make it happen.”

-Steve E. Clyde, Clyde Snow & Sessions Water Rights for Great Salt Lake: Is it the Impossible Dream?

 I’ll begin my message with a big, briny thank you to Steve Clyde. Thank you, Steve for your initiative in opening a critical, timely and in some circles controversial door for engagement to talk about the legal tools that are available to provide water for Great Salt Lake. Clyde, an attorney with Clyde Snow & Sessions, is one of the state’s most respected water attorneys. At the Utah Water Law Conference last October, I had the great pleasure of hearing his presentation: Water Rights for Great Salt Lake: Is it the Impossible Dream?  (Read it at To say the least, I thought Great Salt Lake’s ship had finally come in. And although his emphasis was on the Lake, the takeaway in his talk was about the importance of our natural systems and how they should be given “equal dignity in the [water] appropriation process.” Amen. 

 In fact, if I was stranded on a desert island – maybe in this case our very own Antelope Island – and only had 4 references with me to read, those references would be Clyde’s white paper, Professor Robert Adler’s Law Review article Toward Comprehensive Watershed Restoration and Protection for Great Salt Lake, 1999, Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front, 2016, a white paper by USU Professor Wayne Wurtsbaugh et al, and the 2013 Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan compiled by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The Division is in the Department of Natural Resources and has jurisdictional responsibility for managing the Lake in perpetuity as a public trust for the people of Utah. 

I know what you’re thinking right now – Geeze! That girl needs to get out more! But I do consider these 4 sources among the “Great Books” of Great Salt Lake.  

For nearly 4 years now, I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Steve on the Governor’s Water Strategy Advisory Team (Advisory Team). The purpose of the Advisory Team was to inform Governor Herbert’s 50-year State Water Plan that will be designed to address projected population growth by 2060 and Utah’s water needs. In fact, because of this valuable opportunity I’ve had the pleasure of working with a wide range of talent and perspectives on water in Utah. And I’ve learned a lot. 

Forty one of us, all volunteers, were tasked by the Governor to “(1) solicit and evaluate potential water management strategies; (2) frame various water management options and implications of those options for public feedback; and (3) based on broad input develop a set of recommended strategies and ideas to be considered a part of the 50-yr water plan.” 

You can read more about this process in my Executive Director’s Message (Winter 2017) and review the final Recommended State Water Strategy, July 2017.

The Recommended State Water Strategy is the result of respectful and robust debate among team members working in small groups to identify the issues and recommendations that support the eleven key policy questions in the strategy. We covered a lot of ground. The process was not without its fits and starts. And as you would expect there were the obvious sticking points particularly in the areas of conservation, climate change, and the need for new infrastructure like the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear River development projects. These issues required numerous draft revisions and negotiations among the team members that took us right up to the 11th hour. 

Although Utah is the second most arid state in the nation we’re not running out of water. We just need to be smarter about inventorying/accounting, pricing, and integrating the way we understand the dynamics and the use of the resource. 

But Godzilla is back! This time in the form of climate change. Climate change will require supreme due diligence in our commitment to be responsible and timely in the way we implement strategies to mitigate its impacts. Climate change is included in the strategy. The bottom line here is that although there is no perfect horse, we worked extremely hard to create a product that exhibited a shared long-term vision. A vision that, among a variety of things, includes Great Salt Lake and our environment, and ways to “modernize” the framework for Utah water law and policy to pay due regard to these important values. 

 On July 19th, the ink was finally dry on the document when we presented it to Governor Herbert at the State Capitol. He’ll use it to prioritize his agenda moving forward. Even though our assignment was accomplished at that point, the strategy really marks a beginning for further engagement in our important work for Utah’s water future and for the Lake. Ideally, it will be a working document that we’ll use to continue to seek ways to create accountability. We’re already talking about reconvening the Advisory Team annually for updates on how/or what we’re doing based on the recommendations we worked so hard to forge. The collective water wisdom that went into this exercise provides us with a useful framework that helps us focus our collective work on these many different fronts with an eye on our Lake. 

Speaking of collective work on the Great Salt Lake water front, at the July 12th Great Salt Lake Advisory Council meeting, a draft report Water for Great Salt Lake, July 2017 was presented to council members. The report was commissioned by the GSL Advisory Council and compiled by SWCA Environmental Consultants. Its purpose is “to facilitate a discussion on how to reverse the long-term decline in Great Salt Lake water levels by considering potential strategies to maintain and/or increase the surface elevation (water levels) of Great Salt Lake. ” 

Currently, the draft consists of sixty-six strategies/tools submitted by groups and individuals in response to an invitation to more than 100 recipients that went out last May. The strategies are divided into categories that include: Coordination, Environmental, Legal, Operational, Policy and Structural. Many of the ideas in the draft are the same issues that were raised in the Recommended State Water Strategy. One more call will go out for any further contributions before the Advisory Council reviews the input and begins prioritizing the strategies at its September meeting. The game is afoot.

As you know, it’s important to go wide and take a regional perspective and recognize the significance of Great Salt Lake in the context of other saline systems around the West. We need to be able to assess how those systems are doing because they also provide critical habitats for millions of migratory birds for resting, staging, and nesting during their journey. That’s just what National Audubon Society’s report Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline, July 2017 does. This report is another important tool that helps inform our understanding about how water – or the lack of it due to upstream diversions and climate change -- affects ecosystem health. 

With the additional insights provided by the Great Salt Lake Level Matrix in the 2013 Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan that visually describes how different Lake elevations influence habitats and ecosystem services that contribute $1.3B to Utah’s economy.  And the recently available Integrated Water Resource Management Model developed by CH2M for the state to help inform resource management decisions for Great Salt Lake, the time is ripe to move forward on the water front. 

As Steve Clyde proposed in his presentation at the Utah Water Law Conference, “ We clearly have the ability to do this, and the legal tools to make it happen.” 

In the words of the late economist, Rudiger Dornbusch “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.” 

So let’s make it happen. We’re ready. How about you?

In saline and summer,