September 09, 2021

Will We Choose to Save the Great Salt Lake? Part 3: Easy Choices, Difficult Changes

Will We Choose to Save the Great Salt Lake? Part 3: Easy Choices, Difficult Changes Photo by Evan Barrientos

The Nature Conservancy • In this three-part series, we'll explore the complex story of a natural wonder whose fate will be decided on our watch.

Dogged Conservation and Optimism

Human health. Jobs. Global industries. International wildlife significance. For the Great Salt Lake, the key boxes all seem to be checked. Yet those working for the Lake's protection over the years have had to wage an uphill PR battle. 

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) made its first purchase at the Great Salt Lake in 1984, protecting wetland bird habitat threatened by development. Since then, TNC has worked with a suite of partners to protect more than 12,000 acres of wetlands and uplands around the Lake, including the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve which stretches 11 miles and 4,531 acres along the Lake’s eastern shore, and serves as a crucial buffer against fast-growing development in Davis County.  TNC also works with the Utah State University Botanical Center to run Lake-based outreach and education programs, which have reached more than 20,000 Utah students to date. Over the years, TNC has supported new science on Lake health and championed policy changes to enhance Lake protection and management. Ann Neville, TNC Utah’s Northern Mountains Regional Director, oversees current protection work at the Lake. “I think we’ve reached a time to truly celebrate the Lake,” says Neville. “For me, getting the right partners in the room, and seeing the traction we’re gaining is energizing.” In terms of conserving habitat around the Lake, TNC and many other entities have made real progress—sanctuaries around the Lake have also been established by Audubon, the State of Utah, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The Great Salt Lake has always been one of our top priorities,” says Dave Livermore, TNC’s Utah State Director. “For more than 35 years, many of us have been beating this drum, and trying to safeguard the most vulnerable elements of the system—and honestly, just trying to give the Lake a seat at the table.”

Another veteran Lake advocate, Lynn de Freitas, the Executive Director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake (FOGSL), is also cautiously optimistic today. FOGSL is dedicated to growing an appreciation of the Lake through education and advocacy programs, and De Freitas has spoken out about threats to the Lake for years—from pollution to diversion to development. “It’s a never-ending battle, but I feel we’re moving in a positive direction. If we act in a timely way with a collective will, we can avert horrific results for people, for wildlife and for the world.  Utah can still offer a success story.”

Building Consensus

Why is effectively protecting the Great Salt Lake such a tall order? It’s not just about the Lake’s public image. Part of the challenge, explains Laura Vernon, is the complexity of the Lake ecosystem itself and the way it’s managed by the State of Utah. Vernon is the Great Salt Lake Coordinator with Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Her position is relatively new, and an indicator that state officials are realizing the need for better management across the Lake’s many moving parts. “You have the bed of the Lake, the water flowing to the Lake and the water in the Lake, as well as some of the lands around the Lake all being overseen by different divisions and departments,” Vernon says. “There has not been one entity responsible for looking at the Lake watershed as a whole.”

Vernon, who’s been working on Lake issues for 10 years, is feeling a new optimism. “It’s shocking to me how little attention the Lake has gotten historically, but things have grown leaps and bounds, even over the last year.” 

She points to new, ongoing funding for the GSLAC, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council led by Don Leonard, which this past fall released a report highlighting 12 key strategies to keep water in the Lake.  The report’s recommendations range from changing Utah water law and creating new incentives for agricultural and municipal water conservation to new tools for the acquisition of water rights that could protect the Lake’s inflows.

“The report concluded that while each of the strategies will improve water management, a combination of key strategies is necessary to improve water delivery to Great Salt Lake,” says Leonard. “I’m pleased with the focus on the report and the attention it’s getting.  We are working to build consensus behind the strategies.”

Consensus, Vernon hopes, is what may finally lead to a turning point. “It’s been impressive to see such a range of different stakeholders uniting behind a cause. I remember going on a tour out to Stansbury Island in the middle of the Lake with TNC and other conservation groups as well as folks from the mineral extraction industry. And they were all saying the same thing. It was remarkable.”

Flows, Laws and Progress

Still, even with strange new bedfellows holding hands, reversing water level declines at the Great Salt Lake will be no small endeavor. The strategies outlined by GSLAC are up against a special kind of inertia. “Implementing the strategies would require changes in some policies, practices, laws and regulations,” notes Leonard, “many of which have been in place for a long time and are institutionalized.  Such changes require deliberation and mutual understanding.  An important next step is securing understanding by and support from agriculture interests.”

Historically, Utah ranks high on state water consumption lists. Residents themselves could choose to make easy choices that would help, from repairing leaky faucets and taking shorter showers, to not overwatering their lawns. A large percentage of Utah’s water use, however, goes to agriculture. Legal issues governing western water users and historic laws are complicated and sensitive with far-reaching impacts. And pressures are mounting from all sides. Just this summer, more than 99 percent of Utah fell into “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions, per the U.S. Drought Monitor. According to the Utah Geological Survey web site “Increasing per capita water use coupled with rapid population growth and projected reductions in both snowpack and streamflow due to changing climate is not sustainable.”  Water management is top of mind for Utah leaders.  But for many years, the Great Salt Lake has been an afterthought.  In fact, the State has never had a formally implemented policy to maintain Great Salt Lake water levels at any particular elevation range.

Despite the challenges, Representative Tim Hawkes, the Republican state legislator from northern Utah, is confident. In 2019, he led the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 10, which called on the State to support additional studies to understand the causes and impacts of the declining Lake levels. “I've never been more optimistic about the future of the Lake. HCR-10 has had remarkable staying power,” he says. “Now it feels like we’ve moved into more of a ‘research and testing’ phase. How do we better direct resources to answer critical scientific questions? How do we engage stakeholders in new and meaningful ways? How do we test drive solutions under existing legal authority on a small scale?”

In the most recent 2021 Legislative session, Hawkes successfully prompted Utah policy-makers to approve funding for two new Great Salt Lake projects: one is a study that will better quantify the contribution of groundwater to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands, while the other is an effort to support local governments that are interested in incorporating smart water planning into their land use planning processes. According to Hawkes: “I think it’s important for people to understand one critical fact: people can make a difference. Losing the Lake is not a foregone conclusion. Best available modeling suggests that, with some sensible and sustained effort, we can keep Lake elevations in a range where the Lake continues to support all its primary beneficial uses.”

Seeing Beyond Today

While Hawkes is convinced that the Lake’s impact on public health and the economy will motivate his fellow legislators, he’s also moved by the plight of the birds. “I remember one moment it hit home for me, the amount of life the Lake supports,” he says. “I took a trip to Promontory Point along the Union Pacific causeway in early autumn. From the moment we could see water south of the causeway to the moment we arrived on Promontory, the edge of the water was black with a thick band of countless birds. It went on for mile after mile. I've never seen so many at one time and in one place.”

It’s the type of epiphany that’s welcomed by Ella Sorensen, manager of the Edward L. and Charles L. Gillmor Audubon Sanctuary, a 3,597-acre preserve on the Lake’s South Shore. A chemist by training, Sorensen has spent decades studying the Great Salt Lake’s birds and writing about the Lake for the Salt Lake Tribune. When I ask her how to explain the Lake’s importance to someone on the street, she sighs. “It’s not effective to say things about Great Salt Lake. What works is to bring people out here.”

As Sorensen flicks mud from her boot tip, her soft, white hair lifts in the afternoon breeze. She’s just spent hours walking her daily route through the sanctuary’s sludgy marsh, which provides vital habitat for migratory shorebirds such as American avocets and snowy plovers. “I bring people out here who’ve lived in Utah their whole lives, but never understood the Lake until they came and saw the birds and the wetlands for themselves. It’s tremendously powerful.”

Perhaps that sheer Lake life force is part of what Terry Tempest Williams wanted us to contemplate when she wrote Refuge, 30 years ago. Her life story was inextricably linked to the Lake and the birds—and so is ours.  We share in nature’s bounty, and in its decline.

Thirty years ago, Williams described living in a “virtually uninhabited” area near the Great Salt Lake. Today over 60 percent of Utah's population (more than 2.5 million people) live within 20 miles of the Lake.  What will the next 30 years bring?  For people?  For the Great Salt Lake? For the birds?  That answer, according to Williams, hinges on our choices. “The eyes of the future are looking back at us,” she wrote, “and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”

Click here to read this series on The Nature Conservancy website.