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Great Salt Lake drops to new historic low

Posted at 11:40 AM, Jul 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-05 19:41:17-04

SALT LAKE CITY  — The Great Salt Lake has dropped to a new historic low, FOX 13 News has confirmed.

The imperiled lake has dropped to 4,190.1, below last year's record low of 4,190.2 feet.

"It’s come a little sooner than anticipated," said Joel Ferry, the executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources. "It just shows the broader issue with the drought, with the changing climate, the consumption we’re seeing and the demand for water in the state of Utah is indicative of the Great Salt Lake."

The Great Salt Lake has already dropped more than 11 feet since it was first measured in 1847. Its massive decline presents an ecological catastrophe for the state of Utah. The lake generates snowpack, acts as a refuge for millions of migratory birds and other wildlife, and creates billions in economic development through mineral extraction and recreation.

The exposed lakebed itself has toxins in it that can, over time, pose a public health hazard when dust storms carry it into populated areas.

"As the wind blows, we’re seeing more dusty days. As the lake declines, we’re seeing less snowpack," said Ferry.

Environmental groups were not surprised by it, but hoped the news of the lake's new record low is a call to action.

"Many people have been in somewhat denial about it but it’s time to own up to where we are," said Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake.

She told FOX 13 News in an interview Tuesday it was not too late to save the lake.

"We are not at a place where we just throw up our hands and say there’s nothing we can do," de Freitas said. "There’s a lot we can do. We need to recognize that and step up collectively and make it happen."

Friends of Great Salt Lake has called on the state to abandon the Bear River Pipeline project, arguing it would significantly harm the lake. The Utah Rivers Council criticized political leaders for not doing enough.

"It’s not really a mystery – a lake needs water. The Utah statehouse has given us lip service and dog-and-pony shows about the Lake. We need to put aside two million acre-feet of water into the Lake, anything less than that short changes our future," Zach Frankel, the group's president, said in a statement.

State officials and environmentalists are in agreement that increased water conservation can help to reverse the declines of the lake.

"Be mindful of how we use water. We live in one of the driest states in the nation and we need to act like it. We need to save water," said Laura Vernon, the Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Alarmed by the lake's decline, the Utah State Legislature this year passed a half-billion worth of water conservation measures. Funding will help to push agriculture producers to switch to more water-saving technologies for crops. More communities are moving toward secondary water metering, which can charge people based on how much outdoor watering they do. The state recently tapped the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy to oversee a $40 million trust with the goal of either leasing or purchasing water rights for the Great Salt Lake itself.

Those measures are just starting to go into effect now. Lawmakers have also pledged additional bills to help the lake.

"It’s going to make a huge difference. Some of that’s going to take years to notice," said Ferry, who recently left the legislature to lead the state's natural resources agency.

But state officials and environmentalists say the top thing everyone can do to help save the lake right now is conserve water.

"Like many Salt Lakers and Utahns, I’m deeply concerned about Great Salt Lake, which just today reached a historic low water level. This unique and beloved resource is vital to our area. As it continues to shrink rapidly, the Wasatch Front and state as a whole are faced with serious ecological and economic challenges," Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a statement to FOX 13 News.

"Because the watershed for Great Salt Lake includes several cities and counties, balancing population growth and the health of the lake absolutely requires a collective effort. Salt Lake City will continue to educate residents about water conservation and practice what we preach with our own municipal water use. And we will continue to fight for the health and longevity of the Great Salt Lake through state legislation and progressive City policy."

Governor Spencer Cox's office said they were committed to do more.

"We’re very concerned about the health of the Great Salt Lake and we all have a role to play in saving it. We ask all Utahns to continue conserving water and we’ll continue to work with legislators and stakeholders to find financial and policy solutions that will preserve this vital natural wonder," his senior advisor, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, said in a statement to FOX 13 News.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.