Utah’s political leaders face pressure to act quickly to save the Great Salt Lake

SALT LAKE CITY — The projection that the Great Salt Lake could hit a new record high this year is pressuring Utah’s political leaders to do more to protect the massive body of water.

Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson confirmed to FOX 13 News that she will take state officials and elected lawmakers on a Great Salt Lake boat tour next week as they seek solutions.

“It’s one thing to talk about it, to hear about the problem, it’s another to go and experience it,” she said Thursday. “To see firsthand what the issues are and hear from the people who work there, who know what’s going on, what’s happened historically, what’s happening now so we can figure out what we can do to help solve the problem.”

In a briefing to Salt Lake County Council earlier this week, the The Utah Department of Natural Resources has warned that the Great Salt Lake could drop another two feet this year to a new all-time low..

“This is a terrible concern for all of us, not just because one of our precious natural resources is disappearing,” Lieutenant Governor Henderson said. “Because of the larger long-term ramifications. Ecological, economic and environmental impacts that will have on the state.”

The Great Salt Lake has already shrunk 11 feet since it began to be measured in 1843. Last year it reached an all-time high, due to diversion, drought and climate change. State officials fear impending environmental and economic catastrophe. There is a reduced economic benefit from the lake itself, the threat of toxic dust storms in populated areas of the statea reduced snowpack which impacts the region’s climate and causes damage to the lucrative ski industry and other damage that may be suffered.

“It should come as no surprise to any of us that the lake is likely to set another low elevation record this year. With an unfortunate string of disappointing water years and insufficient snowpack, it’s no wonder Governor Cox has declared a state of extreme drought for Utah,” said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake.

“Like [Salt Lake County] Mayor Jenny Wilson said we must all do our part to deal responsibly with these extraordinary circumstances. And that includes doing our part to sustain the Great Salt Lake ecosystem for the future,” added de Freitas. “The Great Salt Lake belongs to all of us as a resource of public trust. It is ecologically important for millions of migratory birds who depend on it for their future. And it’s economically significant with a $1.32 billion contribution to Utah’s annual GDP. The lake also calls us all. Let’s give him the best of ourselves.”

The Utah State Legislature passed a number of bills this year aimed at conserving water for agriculture and residential use, as well as bringing more water to the Great Salt Lake. Some of them will come into force in a few months. Speaker of the House Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, personally sponsored a $40 million bill to try to get more water for the lake.

“The Legislature remains concerned and committed to the preservation and conservation of the Great Salt Lake. It is good that we acted when we did, because the challenge persists and may even accelerate,” the official said. President Wilson in a statement to FOX 13 News. “The lake is a big ship to turn and solutions will take time to put in place and deliver results. We will continue to look at policy solutions, but it will take a concerted effort from all stakeholders and Utahns to make a real difference.”

The Great Salt Lake Marina has pulled boats because water levels are so low. Salt Lake County Council was told this week that dredging will have to take place to ensure search and rescue teams can get to the water in an emergency.

But increased conservation will go a long way to help. Laura Vernon, the Great Salt Lake coordinator for the DNR, told the council that if more Utahns conserved it, it would help avoid the need for expensive projects that could remove more water from the lake.

This would include the controversial Bear River development project in northern Utah, which would divert water to the lake to meet the needs of the population. The Bear River is one of three rivers that flow into the terminal basin of the Great Salt Lake (the others are the Jordan and Weber rivers).

“If we make continued and conservation efforts, we can defer the Bear River project to 2065, which is much further, much later than we thought we needed to,” she told the county council.

Lieutenant Governor Henderson urged Utahns to conserve water.

“Conservation is currently the most important thing people can do as we work out these longer-term plans together,” she said.

The Friends of the Great Salt Lake are planning a two-day summit next month to discuss the problems facing the lake and potential solutions. You can find more information about it here.

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