December 17, 2020

Timely, Generous and Just—Keeping Water in Great Salt Lake is the Right Thing to Do

“Unless people start caring and start acting, the Great Salt Lake will only be in increasing danger of, quite literally, drying up and blowing away.”

-Salt Lake Tribune Editorial, No Lake City (8/28/20).

We live along the shores of something GREAT – Great Salt Lake. This is still the case and should always be the case. Since statehood, the state of Utah has had a legal stewardship responsibility to manage the sovereign lands of Great Salt Lake in perpetuity as a Public Trust resource. It says so in Article XX, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution. This mandate requires the state to oversee effective management of this ecologically unique and economically significant saline system. However, it’s also a system that, in the peculiar language of Utah’s Prior Appropriation Water Law, is not considered a “beneficial use”. That means that any drop of water that sits in Great Salt Lake is considered wasted.

So what’s so special about a terminal lake that has no outflows? A lake that’s a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville, a once deep fresh water system about the size of Lake Michigan. That’s about 20,000 sq. mi. of landscape covering most of western Utah and parts of eastern Nevada and southern Idaho. A unique but somewhat peculiar system that lies at the bottom of a 21,000 sq.mi. hydrologic drainage basin with a growing population of over 2 million people. A system that has a salinity range from 6% - 27% which is between 2 to 7 times saltier than the ocean. Now a relatively shallow lakescape - 33 ft. at its deepest - that in recent history has fluctuated in size by hundreds of square miles and in elevation by 20 ft. depending upon precipitation and inflows. A lake that is often characterized as buggy, stinky, salty, and a dead sea.

“Great Salt Lake is unique among the great American lakes, arresting in its name, yet least known. Its name itself has an aura of the strange and the mysterious, but it resists those who would know it. Lake of paradoxes, in a country where water is life itself and land has little value without it, Great Salt Lake is an ironical joke of nature – water that is itself more desert than a desert.” The Great Salt Lake by Dale L. Morgan. 1947.

And why does this Public Trust resource require a commitment from the state of Utah to manage it in perpetuity?

Let’s take a closer look at the one and only Great Salt Lake. The namesake of Utah’s state capital, a rich and integral part of our cultural heritage, an underpinning that has shaped traditions, and an endless source of research, literature, visual art, and the natural beauty of this place we call home. The largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere and the 8th largest terminal lake in the world. Located in the second most arid state in the nation where only 1% of its total area is wetlands. 75% of those wetlands are located on and around Great Salt Lake. In addition to providing important habitat, wetlands control flooding, reduce erosion, and act as filters that improve water quality. Wetlands in Utah have declined from 1.2 million acres in the 1950’s to approximately 400,000 acres today. So we need to keep what we still have. Thanks to the report by Bioeconomics, Inc. January 2012. Economic Significance of the Great Salt Lake to the State of Utah. Prepared for the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council we have a broader understanding about the economic values this Public Trust resource provides.

The economic output of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem is $1.32 billion annually. That contribution to Utah’s G.D.P. comes from mineral extraction, brine shrimp harvesting (aquaculture), and recreation (waterfowl hunting, bird watching, boating, swimming/general recreation). Income from total labor is $375.1 million and total employment (full and part-time jobs) from those three sectors is 7,706. In addition, the Lake has a significant “net economic value” between $46.4 million to $98.8 million. These are dollars that would be spent if resource users such as waterfowl hunting, non-hunting recreational use, Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTWs), and industrial dischargers were charged the full market value or price of services received from the ecosystem.

There are also important passive use values that are derived from simply knowing that the Lake’s natural environment and populations exist in a viable condition. And that the resource will be available for future generations of wildlife and people. We also know that water in the Lake suppresses dust from an otherwise exposed lakebed, as well as enhancing our snowpack in the Wasatch with its “Lake Effect”.

" The Great Salt Lake is ornithologically the most impressive salt lake on the continent.” Dr. Joseph R. Jehl Jr.

The ecological values of this remarkable system are equally awesome. In addition to resident populations of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, snakes, fish and birds, we have an extraordinarily wide embrace of migratory birds that elevate the Lake to a global scale of importance. This is evidenced by 10 million migratory birds – about 3 times the current population of Utah- that rely on Great Salt Lake for food and habitat critical to the lifeblood and promise of their future. 338 species of birds representing noteworthy avian populations that includes 30% of the Pacific Flyway come here for resting, staging and nesting as they make their migratory journey through the Western Hemisphere. Here’s a sample of this impressive flock: Wilson’s Phalarope -340,000 - largest staging concentration in the world, American Avocet-250,000 – many times higher than any other wetland in the Pacific Flyway, Snowy Plover- nearly a quarter of the continental population, millions of the Eared Grebe population depend on GSL, American White Pelican-one of the top five breeding populations in North America, and more than 500 wintering Bald Eagles; one of the top ten winter populations in the lower 48 states come here too.

It should come as no surprise that feeding and housing these astonishing numbers also requires water. Without water, islands are no longer islands, submerged aquatic vegetation is no longer submerged, and microbialites aka “Great Salt Lake coral” are unable to fulfill an important role in the food web of the system. Microbialites are calcium carbonate structures formed by the hydrogeological connectivity between the landscape and the lakebed. They carpet most of the lakebed and serve as a food browse source for brine shrimp and are an integral part of the life cycle of brine flies. Both of these critters are vital food sources for birds because they are very high in protein. Brine flies also break down organic matter that would otherwise accumulate in and around the ecosystem.

Because of this impressive bird use all five bays of the Lake have been designated Important Bird Areas by the National Audubon Society. And in 1991, Great Salt Lake was designated a site of “Hemispheric Importance” within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. But even though the Lake provides this endowment of exceptional beneficial uses, water; its lifeblood - is not considered a beneficial use under Utah water law. This confounding disposition severely complicates the mandate that “We the People” have been given to sustain this truly remarkable place. Compounded by climate change, an average daily per person water consumption of 232 gallons (2015), and a growing population projected to reach 6 million people by 2060, these alarming conditions do not bode well for our Lake’s future. Oy!

A timely and insightful white paper Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front. Wayne Wurtsbaugh et al. February 2016 not only gives us a troubling glimpse of the past but serves as a warning about the future. The report found that since the pioneers arrived in 1847, water development and river diversions for consumptive water uses for municipal and industrial purposes, agricultural activities, reservoirs, and evapotranspiration have produced a persistent reduction of flows into Great Salt Lake by nearly 40%. This reduction has effectively dropped the Lake’s average elevation by 11’, shrinking it in size by almost 50%.

We’ve learned from other saline systems that significant water diversions not only impact ecosystem services but public health as well. Exposed lakebeds generate dust that contributes to air pollution. Billions of dollars are required to mitigate these impacts but many of them can never be fully realized. According to Craig Miller, Utah Division of Water Resources and contributor to the aforementioned white paper, “There are always big ups and downs but the long term trend is down. Based on historical observations, the “average” level of the Lake is said to be 4,200’ above sea level. But with all the modern-era water development upstream, the Lake currently hovers between 4,195’ and 4,196’ above sea level with normal weather.”

On November 16th at the Saltair Boat Harbor, the surface elevation of Great Salt Lake was 4,192.2’. This is 1.2’ above the 1963 record low of 4,191’.

In 2008, when FRIENDS co-hosted the Joint Conference of the 10th International Conference on Salt Lake Research and 2008 FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake Issues Forum 315 participants from 19 countries attended. The program title was Saline Systems Around the World: Unique Systems with Unique Values. Dr. Robert Jellison, limnologist who has done extensive research on Mono Lake, another hypersaline system, and a research associate with the Marine Science Institute, U of California, Santa Barbara, CA. was one of the plenary speakers. The title of his presentation was “The Conservation and Management of Salt Lakes: Past, Present, and Future.” Jellison noted that in the context of conserving these water bodies, agricultural diversions of fresh water in the last several decades has permanently changed these lakes for the worse, while at the same time their ecological importance to migrating and breeding birds has become widely recognized. As for their outlook going forward, he stated that “[t]he future of many saline lakes will be decided over the next several decades as the direct economic value of fresh water inflows are weighted against the less easily measured ecosystem goods and services provided by these unique ecosystems.” So too with Great Salt Lake.

It's imperative that we recognize water for Great Salt Lake as a beneficial use and incorporate measures to support its sustainability. Someone characterized this recognition as “Moving foundation blocks rather than having an earthquake.” Let’s work together to ensure that we have a return on our investment in this phenomenal Public Trust resource. Let’s keep the Lake GREAT. Afterall, Great Salt Lake is the gift that keeps on giving; just add water.

In saline and optimism,