July 25, 2018

The Responsibility to Sustain the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem in Perpetuity Falls Squarely on the Shoulders of the State of Utah

Executive Director's Message – Summer 2018

“The Lake is as essential to who we are and what we are as anything. When Great Salt Lake is in peril, the state is in peril. “

–Warren Peterson, State Water Strategy Advisory Team Co-chair

 On March 23, 2018, water right application No. 23-3972 was filed jointly by the Utah Division of Water Resources, and the Water Resources Board of Idaho for 400,000 acre.-ft. of Bear River water. The application was filed with the Utah Division of Water Rights and proposes to store, and appropriate water that would normally be released from Bear Lake or bypass Bear Lake as a part of flood control during spring runoff. The sources of this water would include:

1) “The Bear River” (which provides the lion’s share of inflows (60%) to Great Salt Lake)

2) “Flood control releases tributary to Bear River”

3) Bear Lake inflows “tributary to Bear River”

Got that?

 Beneficiaries of this stored and appropriated water would include agricultural irrigators within the Bear River Basin in Utah and Idaho, together with municipal and industrial users in selected counties in southern Idaho and along the Wasatch Front. And, although recreation and the environment have been gratuitously tossed into the mix of these beneficiaries, it’s too early to say what that would look like. The Division of Water Resources (Water Resources) is emphasizing that the only way to provide insightful scenarios to answer questions being raised about volume, distribution, timing of flows, and environmental impacts or benefits to Bear Lake and Great Salt Lake will come through improved modeling of the Bear River system. Currently, the model of the system stops at the state line between Utah and Idaho. To develop a more comprehensive understanding, modeling needs to extend to the river’s headwaters in the High Uintas. This will take months, money, and an interstate effort. 

It should be noted that Idaho had initially intended to file the Bear River water right application on its own. However in February, Utah was invited to participate, as was Wyoming – which declined. I do wonder what might have happened if Utah had not been asked to file jointly.  

Although many people were surprised by the news when it was finally made public more than a week after the filing, it’s fair to say that the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (State Lands) and PacifiCorp were totally blindsided. 

State Lands is a sister division with Water Resources in the Department of Natural Resources. Its jurisdictional responsibility is to manage the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem as a public trust resource in perpetuity for the people of Utah. About a year ago, it completed a multi year process to develop a tool called the Great Salt Lake Integrated Water Model (GSLIM). The price tag for that was $400,000. The purpose of this model is to help State Lands manage the Lake and its resources more effectively by taking into account upstream diversions in the watershed. To say the least, this water right filing would be a significant factor in that management dynamic and until the revised Bear River model is incorporated into the GSLIM no one can fully predict how various scenarios of Bear River storage and future development will alter the Lake. 

PacifiCorp has been operating on the Bear River since practically the dawn of creation. It’s a source of hydroelectric power in Utah and Idaho, delivers irrigation water to stakeholders along the Bear River, and operates the top 21.65’ of Bear Lake as a storage reservoir for flood control. Through court decrees, the Bear River Compact, and other settlement agreements, PacifiCorp has legal and contractual responsibilities that it is expected to meet. At the very least, in both the interest of working to achieve effective interdivisional communication, as well as promoting the practice of interstate comity, you would think that these two key stakeholders would have been notified in advance of the filing. 

It’s difficult not to confuse this joint water right application with the Bear River Development Project because the initial amount of water that Utah and Idaho can develop under the Project is the same – 400,000 acre-ft. – sort of. And although Water Resources says that this water is for flood storage in Bear Lake and not for development, it’s troubling nonetheless. It’s troubling because the annual flow of Bear River into Great Salt Lake is about 1.2 million acre-feet. And the basic fact here is that taking water out of the Bear River system is taking more water out of the system. And that’s a lot of water and the Lake can’t afford it. So we’ve got to push the pause button, comment and protest, and require the necessary scrutiny that the Lake deserves. If the application is approved by Utah and Idaho water authorities, we need to be sure that at the very least, there is no net decrease, and indeed, that some additional water comes to the Lake.  

But more to the point with this filing, it is a clarion call for Great Salt Lake’s future. This will be the first of many water claims on the Lake that will succeed in its demise of a death by a thousand cuts unless we declare our intention to save it NOW!

When the Bear River Compact was amended in 1980, it allocated ALL the waters of the Bear River – to Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. And none for the Lake itself. So much for Utah’s last untapped water source. These allocations include additional storage of 75,000 acre-ft. above Bear Lake, and additional depletion/consumption of 400,000 acre-ft. below Bear Lake, which is something we should all find unconscionable. The first right to develop and deplete would go to Idaho –125,000 acre- ft. and then to Utah – 275,000 acre- ft. If there is anything left beyond that depletion, Utah and Idaho can each deplete an additional 75,000 acre-ft. of water. Any remaining water would be divided up on a 70/30 basis. This would be a total depletion of 550,000 acre-ft. of Bear River water and the demise of Great Salt Lake as we know it. Average lake elevations would hover between 4192’ and 4194’ for extensive periods of time (20-40 yrs) exposing untold thousands of acres of lakebed to potential dust events, navigation and recreation would be severely impacted, Gunnison Island, home to the 3rd largest breeding population of American White Pelicans in North America would be exposed for periods of 40 years, migratory bird use and habitats would be in trouble, and all industries including the brine shrimp fishery would be significantly impacted. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. 

In Leia Larsen’s April 4th Standard Examiner article about the UT/ID water right, Eric Millis, Water Resources director and Bear River Commissioner said, “It is water that would’ve gone to Great Salt Lake, that’s true. I think in the discussion we have to have, we’d be looking at what we are doing to and for Great Salt Lake in all of this.”

What’s important to remember in this conversation is how critical timing and the volume of inflows to the Lake are. There is a direct effect on lake levels that in turn influences ecological dynamics and economic values of the system. That’s why in this newsletter we have included a protest filed against application No. 23-3972 by Dr. Wally Gwynn. Although no formal public notification of the application has been made yet, when the news of the joint filing became public, protests were immediately being filed. Gwynn has calculated how 400,000 acre- ft. of Bear River inflows to Great Salt Lake at different elevations has a significant impact on salinity, the brine shrimp fishery, migratory birds, and mineral extraction. When you fold climate change into the mix, you’ll see how that amount of water flowing into the Lake from the Bear River provides a critical cushion for the system. Without this cushion there will be dire consequences to the Lake. In the initial characterizations of the joint filing by Water Resources about how Great Salt Lake could fit into the “Win-Win-Win” outcome it envisioned, water to the Lake would be too little and too late to address the cushion Gwynn identifies. 

Since Great Salt Lake belongs to all of us as a public trust resource, Water Resources is conducting a scoping process. It’s an attempt to bring stakeholders up to speed on this issue, hear our questions and concerns, and engage us more fully. To date, Water Resources has met with 33 different stakeholder interests that include representatives from Idaho and Wyoming, PacifiCorp, water conservation districts, conservation, recreation, and GSL interests, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, the State Water Development Commission, GSL Technical Team, and members of the Executive Water Task Force. One useful outcome from all of this would be a scoping document that reflects this comprehensive input and provides a responsible basis for moving forward on this front.

The State Engineer of Utah and Idaho’s comparable authority have been asked not to act on the filing by putting it out for public notification. At the very least, modeling the entire Bear River system, generating various scenarios from the modeling, incorporating those scenarios in the Great Salt Lake Integrated Water Model, and including the scoping results should be a prerequisite to going “public.” Once that public notification happens, there is a 2-week notification period followed by just a 20-day public comment period during which time protests can be filed with the State Engineer. Confusingly, protests can also be filed now – before the filing is public. The application can be reviewed at: www.waterrights.utah.gov Comments can be emailed to waterrights@utah.gov or mailed to Utah Division of Water Rights, 1594 West North Temple, Suite 220, P.O. Box 146300, Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-6300. All comments and protests should reference Water Right 23-3972.

On April 17th, the Bear River Commission met at the Department of Natural Resources to discuss public input that began a year ago as a part of a 20-yr review of the Bear River Compact. Article 14 in the Compact provides this unique review opportunity for the Commission to consider any reopening requests and/or amendments proposed through this process. If after extensive study and review the Commission agrees to support amending the Compact – a Herculean prospect to say the least that would take years – “amendments would require approval of all three states, ratification by their respective legislatures and approval by all three governors, as well as consent by Congress and approval by the President.

During this 20-year review process, 67 written comments were received. Five of them requested reopening and amending the Compact. As one of them, FRIENDS urged the Commission to recognize and incorporate a greater understanding of Great Salt Lake, its ecological significance and economic importance into the infrastructure of the Bear River Compact and management of Bear River. A telling remark from one of the Idaho Commissioners that made my jaw drop was that, although it was clear that there are values and concerns about Great Salt Lake that need to be addressed, it was Utah’s problem. The Commission passed a resolution not to amend the Compact. However, the Commission voted to refer a request to its technical committee to study a recommendation for some kind of mechanism or committee for environmental concerns that could be incorporated into the management considerations. This will be revisited at a future meeting. 

It’s been a year since FRIENDS and 40 other members of the State Water Strategy Advisory Team presented the July 2017 Recommended State Water Strategy to Governor Herbert. The Strategy is a timely and responsible outcome that is intended to begin laying the foundation for a necessary dialogue about water policy and collaborative decision-making for the second most arid state in the nation, one that continues to grow. 

Given what we know about the fate of the Bear River and how diversions and development will impact the Lake, we need to build collaborative partnerships and find solutions that will work. We don’t have the luxury of time. The Lake will not wait for us. Although the responsibility to sustain the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem in perpetuity falls squarely on the shoulders of the State, it’s up to us to make sure that happens. 


In saline,