April 20, 2022

Lake Elevated: A $40M GSL Water Trust is a Great Start But Water is Still the Limiting Factor

“The Lake’s always been there, and, quite frankly, I thought it always would be. But I’m not sure that’s the case, I’m not sure the Lake will always be there unless we have some important and meaningful interventions.”
— House Speaker Brad Wilson, Utah State Legislature, Feds Join Effort to Rescue the Great Salt Lake, SL Tribune, 2/19/22 Leia Larsen

On Friday, February 18, 2022, at the Utah State Capitol Complex, Members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Standing Committee met in Room 120 Senate Building to vote on 6 agenda items, 5 of which were water related. HB 410, Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement, was first up. Sponsored by House Speaker Brad Wilson, the proposed bill called for the establishment of a Great Salt Lake water trust “to implement projects, programs, or voluntary arrangements that will in summary, include the integration of water planning and management efforts that benefit the Great Salt Lake watershed, sustain Great Salt Lake and the Great Salt Lake’s wetlands, retain or enhance water flows to the Lake, conserve and restore upstream habitats that are key to protecting the hydrology and health of Great Salt Lake and the Great Salt Lake’s surrounding ecosystem, and enhance, preserve, or protect the Great Salt Lake.” Awesome!

It seems that the genesis of HB 410 was prompted by a “Great Salt Lake Ah-Ha” that House Speaker Wilson experienced one morning while listening to a RadioWest interview that focused on Great Salt Lake’s declining elevations. Prompted by this radio moment (thank you, RadioWest), Wilson convened a GSL Summit on January 5th. The summit was intended to bring state legislators together for a halfday session of GSL 101. It was a timely opportunity before the 2022 General Legislative Session kicked off on January 24th to instill a sense of understanding that “all Utahns should recognize the importance of Great Salt Lake to our health, economy, quality of life, and identity as a State.” It came along with a timely message about how declining water elevations would impact all of those values.

When the hearing was open for public comment, I was first up, introduced myself, and shared the following:

I’ve been involved in water issues impacting Great Salt Lake for over 20 years now, when it was becoming increasingly obvious that the Lake was in trouble. In 2009, I served on the first Great Salt Lake Advisory Council appointed by Gov. Huntsman, was a member of Gov. Herbert’s Water Strategy Advisory Team that put together the 2017 Recommended State Water Strategy, and worked on the GSL Resolution (HCR-10) Steering Group that produced the Dec. 2020 report, Recommendations to Ensure Adequate Water Flows to Great Salt Lake and Its Wetlands. I’m a member of the Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands’ Great Salt Lake Technical Team, and I’m actively engaged in planning processes and policy development that focus on Utah’s water resources, and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

Throughout all of those meetings, with all of that discussion, resulting in all of those recommendations, I have to admit that there were times I wondered whether what we were doing was an exercise in futility. And the lower the Lake got, the more I wondered. I thought it would take a seismic shift in thinking about the Lake for many of those thoughtful and practical recommendations to become reality. And here we are.

When I was invited to attend Speaker Wilson’s Great Salt Lake Summit in January, I was hoping that this time help was on the way. But it wasn’t until I saw a draft of HB 410, that I really started to believe that. I cannot overstate the importance of this bill. For too long, the Lake has been at the literal end-of-the-line when it comes to water rights. This bill will help change that. For too long, every drop of water in the Lake was considered wasted. This bill will turn that on its head, establishing a water trust to help sustain the Lake. Finally.

But none of this is possible without support from the legislature. And none of this is possible without significant funding support. As much as I love the Lake, it’s been difficult to watch its decline while remembering how vibrant it was—not that many years ago. I do believe that it’s not too late to save the Lake. If we work together, we can turn things around and keep our Lake GREAT. I urge you to support this bill. Thank you.

The day after the hearing, I received a text from a Great Salt Lake admirer who asked whether this bill was a good thing? I replied that indeed it was a good thing because it gives us money to work with to investigate water partnerships. It finally acknowledges that water for the Lake is necessary and that there can be ways to make that happen. And since water costs money, it creates an incentive that can be amplified by additional financial support. The bill also addresses Rep. Joel Ferry’s point that although agricultural water use has the lion’s share of water rights in Utah, it’s necessary to provide incentives that allow those users to “participate” in the solution. That would be a key factor in changing those baby steps into giant steps. Giant steps into a belief system that confirms that this is “what we gotta do.” So, yes, this is a good thing.

At last, the fever has broken. A fever that has unfortunately perpetuated for 126 years and which effectively dropped the elevation of Great Salt Lake by 11’ since Utah became a state. A fever that in 1963, took the Lake down to a historic low of 4,191.3’ asl, at a time when our population was much smaller and the momentum of population growth hadn’t “kicked in” yet. At a time when many people found it difficult to even say “climate change.” And at a time when we should have been thinking about where Great Salt Lake elevation trends could take us—notwithstanding the record high elevation of 4,211.6’ asl in 1986-’87. In July 2021, once again we hit the historic low only to be superseded on October 16, 2021 by a new historic low of 4,190.4’ asl. And although the pause button has finally been pushed, there is no guarantee that Great Salt Lake won’t continue to decline due to megadrought, climate change, and continued population growth. We know the values of the Lake that are linked to its elevations. But what are the values we place on the Lake that determine its future? We must take this opportunity and give the Lake our very best effort for its future and future generations of wildlife and people.

Briny kudos to the many Great Salt Lake champions within the watershed who have been working in a myriad of ways that helped prompt the development of HB 410 as well as the impressive list of water related bills that we saw during this session. And the admirable cohort of legislators who took the initiative to support critical water related bills that can benefit the Lake should be commended. Among them are: Sen. Iwamoto, Rep. Ferry, Rep. Miles, Rep. Ward, Sen. Sandall, Rep. Ballard, Sen. Vickers, Rep. Bennion, Rep. Owens, and Rep. Hawkes, who has set a track record for determination and follow through for the Lake. And which is why FRIENDS will be awarding its 2022 Friend of the Lake Award to Rep. Hawkes at our 2022 Great Salt Lake Issues Forum, May 18-20th at the University of Utah Guest House & Conference Center. He gets the gold!

This is the first legislative session that I can remember that I didn’t approach with a sense of dread. Yes, there are bills that we oppose—and for good reason. But the overall approach of the legislature with regard to the Lake is positive: support for secondary water metering, support for instream flow, support for water efficiency, support for a Great Salt Lake water trust. And that’s a really positive sign. But an even better sign will be when we finally start acting like we live in a desert and admit to ourselves that when it comes to water, there are choices we’re going to have to make. At the very top of that list should be the choice to do whatever is necessary to save Great Salt Lake. I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time that that’s the choice we’ll make. But let’s also recognize that we cannot save the Lake and move forward with developing the Bear River at the same time. That is simply a false choice.

Watching the support given to HB410, hearing legislators from southern Utah referring to Great Salt Lake as “our” Great Salt Lake, I was filled with hope for the first time in a long time. Finally. If only it were that simple, though. Much like the recent draft of the state water plan, the big “but” that hangs over it all is what about the Bear River development project? What about the 400,000 acre-feet application submitted by Utah and Idaho to divert water from Bear River? How do you reconcile setting aside tens of millions of dollars to lease water rights for the Lake at the same time you’re setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars to permanently remove that water? And how do you reconcile the possibility of approving thousands of acre-feet of instream flow for the Lake with the possibility of removing hundreds of thousands of acre-feet from the same watershed? We simply can’t have it both ways. And yet here we are.

“We must govern for the benefit of future generations. Sustainably manage the resources that we have, and to leave an inheritance for those who are yet to come.”
—Darren Parry, Former Chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation

In saline and working to keep the Lake GREAT,