How the Interior’s $1 Million Grant Helps Avoid ‘Catastrophic’ Great Salt Lake Wetland Problems

Tundra swans fly through wetlands near the Great Salt Lake on February 17. It is estimated that three-quarters of continental tundra swans use the Great Salt Lake wetlands each year. These wetlands are the focus of a project that received a federal grant on Wednesday. (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

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This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

OGDEN – The Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area’s dyke system is key to controlling the water that makes it an important management area for the millions of birds that flock there – or other areas near the Great Salt Lake – every year.

However, it is eroding over time and is now at risk of failing. If so, that’s bad news for keeping it the sanctuary it is, says Chris Bonsignore, conservation programs manager for Washington-based conservation group Ducks Unlimited.

“It would be catastrophic,” he said. “Essentially, if this levee failed, (state land managers) would no longer be able to manage water and provide water to this really productive wetland habitat that is in the (area waterfowl management).

That’s why he’s relieved of a round of funding from the federal government that complements funding for a project led by Ducks Unlimited to fortify the dike. State officials have already done the preparatory work around this levee to prepare for the upcoming works to improve it so that it does not fail in the future.

The U.S. Department of the Interior on Wednesday approved $1 million in grants for the Lower Bear River/Great Salt Lake project through the Migratory Birds Conservation Commission. It supplements funds needed to make improvements to vital Bear River and Ogden bays, as Utah agencies and private donors have already raised just over $2 million.

The money will not only be used to repair the massive seawall at the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area, but it will also go towards what Bonsignore calls a “suite of projects” around Ogden and Bear Bays. River near the northeast edge of the Great Salt Lake to help him. remains an important bird area.

Other targeted areas include Fremont Island, Howard Slough Waterfowl Management Area and two private properties closer to Bear River Bay and Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Planning for the five zones is just beginning and all work is expected to be completed by 2025.

“It’s basically about restoring the ecosystem that will improve the productivity of these wetlands which will benefit a whole range of species,” Bonsignore said. “But there will also be improvements in water quality, as well as improvements in water availability related to agricultural water efficiency.”

Another of the projects will not be as visible to people as the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area, but will have just as much impact. Since the water is not controlled by the Bear River floodplain, there is a plan to build small 3 or 4 foot dikes for flooding in the areas closest to Bear River Bay.

This will allow the reproduction of natural disturbance events and other natural processes that are not currently occurring. This should help prevent Phragmites and other invasive plants from dominating a wetland while controlling water levels a little more easily, according to project officials.

At the same time, Bonsignore said a private farmer in the area was donating equipment and labor to install a new pipeline and replace an old ditch to improve irrigation on the farm, while sending additional water into the bay.

How can we all work together and ultimately benefit from the thing we cherish, but perhaps do it in different ways? What we do is only one way to contribute.

–Chris Bonsignore, Conservation Programs Manager for Ducks Unlimited

The collective projects are expected to benefit many bird species, but especially those that use the Great Salt Lake the most, according to the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission document. About three-quarters of continental tundra swans, more than half of western snowy plovers, and one-quarter of pintail populations use this area of ​​the lake.

It is also the largest breeding population area in the world for Utah’s state bird, the California gull, as well as other bird species like the white-faced ibis. But the Great Salt Lake is a haven for all kinds of bird species with around 10 million birds using the lake each year, either as a permanent home or as a stopover on their annual migration.

In total, the Department of the Interior has approved about $95 million in grants for wetland improvements across the country, including the goal of new wild bird sanctuaries. Home Office Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement that the investments “will help ensure the birds continue to thrive for the next hundred years and beyond”.

A white-faced ibis walks through the Bear River Watershed Conservation Area June 28, 2016. The Great Salt Lake section near the conservation area is the world's largest breeding area for the species.
A white-faced ibis walks through the Bear River Watershed Conservation Area June 28, 2016. The Great Salt Lake section near the conservation area is the world’s largest breeding area for the species. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Although the Lower Bear River/Great Salt Lake project is the only project in Utah to receive money, the department has already approved nearly $35 million for various conservation projects in Utah this year. Bonsignore knows the suite of $3 million projects isn’t the last job to be done to protect the precious Great Salt Lake wetlands, either.

Yet as the lake recedes — which it’s expected to do about 2 feet again this year — it’s getting harder and harder to really know how much work or money is needed to save the wetlands.

“That’s a question I think a lot of us would like to be able to answer,” he concedes. “I think that’s a question that’s kind of broader than all of us right now.”

With the Lower Bear River/Great Salt Lake project, as well as millions of new government funds earmarked for the lake this year, there is, however, a shift in how this issue is being addressed. Ducks Unlimited is set to reveal a slew of other desired projects specifically for the Great Salt Lake next month, joining the combined efforts of other conservation groups, state and federal agencies, private corporations and farmers all seeking to find ways to protect wetlands.

the Audubon Society announced public-private collaboration to acquire water rights last fall that allows water to flow into Farmington Bay instead of irrigation systems for the next decade, as another example of groups working together for the Great Salt Lake.

This approach to the Grand Lac Salé is something Bonsignore expects in the future.

“He’s looking for ways to collaborate,” he says. “How can we all work together and ultimately benefit from the thing we cherish, but maybe do it in different ways? What we do is just one of the ways we can contribute.”

How the Interior's $1 Million Grant Helps Avoid 'Catastrophic' Great Salt Lake Wetland Problems

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Carter Williams is an award-winning journalist who covers general news, the outdoors, history and sports for He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a transplant from Utah via Rochester, New York.

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