April 27, 2020

Great Salt Lake in the time of Godzilla

“It really does all start today.”

–Jeff Denbleyker, Project Manager and Water Resources Engineer, Jacobs

March 22: It was time to take a break from Zoom meetings, conference calls, emails and other online work. Time to take a break from vacuuming behind all of these books on bookshelves and weeding files and newspaper clippings that have accumulated as a part of my Great Salt Lake work since FRIENDS was founded in 1994. It was time to retool my brain, get some fresh air and Vitamin D, so I could regain my center of gravity and find solace in this turmoil and uncertainty. It was time to check in with the birds at Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area to lift my spirits, recognize my sense of hemispheric community and behold the seasonal dynamics that Great Salt Lake has to offer. And it was good.

Lots of other people had the same idea as they walked and biked along the road and explored some of the trails on the property. And although the Marsh Master was taking Sunday off, as far as the eye could see there was evidence on the landscape that the necessary work to eradicate invasive phragmites from this important habitat for millions of migratory birds was ongoing. Here at the Lake the clock is always ticking and the beat goes on. And for the birds, there’s no question about where their center of gravity is for resting, staging and nesting. It’s here at Great Salt Lake where all things matter for them. And it’s here at Great Salt Lake where they need to be.

Which is why we need to take the long view of the current situation. While our consciousness and actions are heighted by the COVID-19 menace and we exercise thoughtful measures to improve our safety, Great Salt Lake’s sustainability and valuable ecosystem services are always being challenged. Godzilla may be wreaking havoc on a global scale but it too shall meet its demise, and life and our natural systems as we knew them will still be there waiting for us to educate and advocate on their behalf. The ongoing work that’s required to keep Great Salt Lake’s sustainability on track is an important part of this unique continuum. So it’s imperative that we stay focused there too.

One significant giant step forward occurred during the 2020 Utah Legislative Session with a Request for Appropriation of ongoing funding from the Sovereign Lands Restricted Account for a full time Great Salt Lake Coordinator within the Division

of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (the Division). The Division in the Department of Natural Resources has jurisdictional responsibility to manage in-perpetuity the bed of Great Salt Lake—a sovereign land—as a public trust resource for the people of Utah. But the Division is also responsible for forest health, responding to wild-land fires and managing other sovereign lands in Utah that include Bear Lake, Bear River, Utah Lake, Green River, Jordan River, portions of the Colorado River, sovereign lands within Canyonlands National Park, and other properties. Clearly the Division and Great Salt Lake needed more help.

The pressures on the Lake are continuing to intensify from the long-term downward trend in lake levels since statehood, impacts from climate change, and increasing population. Today, low water levels are presenting a challenge to wildlife, habitats, salinity, brine shrimp, air quality, unique and critical ecological conditions of the system, and the economic generators that contribute 7,000 jobs and $1.3B annually to Utah’s GDP. These circumstances confirmed that this timely and positive funding support was welcome.

Thanks to a variety of Great Salt Lake champions and a letter signed by an extensive list of Great Salt Lake conservation interests and industries advocating for this position, it is now a reality. As Lake advocates, we emphasized the ever-changing demands and increasing threats to Great Salt Lake and the importance of ensuring that the Division has the necessary staff capacity to responsibly manage the Lake. This funding will enhance the Division’s ability to make adept and long-term management decisions for the system while working with partners and other resources that include the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. The Council works closely with the governor and the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Natural Resources “on the sustainable use, protection, and development of the Lake.” This synergy will help promote effective management of the Lake as a public trust for the people of Utah.

In brine we trust!

Another homerun during the session was the passage of SB 26 – Water Banking Amendments (Sen. Jani Iwamoto and Rep. Timothy Hawkes). As stated in a January 27, 2020 letter from the sponsors that was

sent to legislative colleagues urging their support of the bill, “SB 26 is in the best interest of the State and will help Utah prepare for a more secure tomorrow.” And “it is one of the many tools that will be needed to address the complex realities of Utah’s changing water conditions and increasing demands.” This bill and the success of its passage is the culmination of three years of extensive due diligence by the Water Banking Working Group, a diverse group of the water user community, FRIENDS among them, and State partner agencies. This success gives Utah an opportunity to exercise a versatile water tool whose time has come for the 3rd driest state in the nation.

Water banking was identified in the July 2017 Recommended State Water Strategy presented to Governor Herbert to inform his 50-yr. state water plan. It was included as a potential water tool for agriculture to provide flexibility in water management in accordance with state water law. Simply put, water that might ordinarily be used for a 4th cutting of alfalfa could be made available through the bank for a fixed period of time, perhaps 1 or 2 years, at a fair market value for urban use and/or for the benefit of the environment and the protection of natural systems like in-stream flows, and even Great Salt Lake. The opportunity for the state to explore this measure more fully was supported during the 2019 Legislative Session with the passage of SJR01–Joint Resolution Supporting the Study of Water Banking in Utah (Sen. Jani Iwamoto and Rep. Stewart Barlow).

Coupled with the expectation that water banking legislation would be forthcoming during the 2020 General Session, this Senate Joint Resolution authorized a one-time appropriation of $400,000. This fund was earmarked to develop a state-wide water banking marketing strategy to study other banking models, engage stakeholders, build awareness and most importantly build confidence in the concept. The end goal would be to create the structure for voluntary local water banks designed by local water right holders to exercise water management flexibility. The appropriation was matched by a federal SmartWATER grant that enhanced that momentum. The outcome was SB 26.

Implementing the tenets of Voluntary, Temporary, and Local, three demonstration areas were identified where banking projects will be developed for 10 years. They will serve as models for lessons learned and ways to refine this tool for other local water users who want to consider banking. You can read more about this in our Spring 2019 newsletter—Water Banking in Utah: Voluntary, Temporary, and Local by Nathan Bracken.

Kudos to everyone who helped to move this important water tool forward as an alternative to just developing more water. Amen.

And in the “Three’s a Charm” department, next November, Governor Herbert and the Legislature will be anticipating a report from the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Quality that relates to Great Salt Lake and water. This report will focus on “recommendations for policy and actionable solutions to avert economic, social, and environmental harm due to declining water levels at Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.” The report is in response to HCR 10- Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake (Rep. Timothy Hawkes and Sen. Scott Sandall). The House Concurrent Resolution passed unanimously during the 2019 session, was signed by the governor, and the legislation was encouraged by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.

In a letter sent to Governor Herbert in early 2019, the Council emphasized the necessity of taking action to protect existing water supplies to the Lake as well as finding ways to provide additional water to support its ecosystem services. One of the tools generated by the Council that will help inform the development of the report is a prioritized list of potential strategies identified in the Council study, Evaluating Strategies for Great Salt Lake, “to maintain and/or increase the surface elevation of the Lake.” The list will evaluate “the feasibility, cost and the potential of each priority strategy to deliver water to the Lake.” A multi-stakeholder steering committee that includes FRIENDS has been formed to assist the departments in developing the report.

With this briny brain trust, this mandate, and this momentum, we have an extraordinary opportunity to put our collective best foot forward on behalf of the sustainability of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. And although we can’t simply flip a switch to see positive results, we have the tools to drive effective planning and responsible investments to increase the assurance of keeping the Lake in a range that will satisfy most of its beneficial uses. With continued resilience of the Lake as our goal, it really does all start today.

In saline and optimism,