SALT LAKE CITY — The Great Salt Lake may be weeks away from hitting its new historic low.
The lake could to drop over the next three to four weeks, Laura Haskell, the drought coordinator for Utah's Division of Water Resources, told FOX 13 News on Thursday.
"We need to be aware that we are in a drought and the Great Salt Lake is kind of the canary in the coal mine. Where we have this drought situation and we need to be aware the natural environment is very stressed," she said.
Snowpack and spring runoff has not been good. Recent storms have helped with water use but haven't really helped recharge reservoirs. In April, state officials had projected another two foot drop in the Great Salt Lake to a new historic low.
"There could be an additional 57 square miles of exposed lake bed if it goes down two feet again this year. And that’s more exposed lake bed to be susceptible to erosion," Haskell said.
Laura Vernon, the Great Salt Lake coordinator for Utah's Department of Natural Resources, said the new historic low highlights the urgency of the situation.
"We need all hands on deck to work to keep water in the Great Salt Lake," she said.
The shrinking Great Salt Lake, a result of the mega-drought, climate change and water diversion, presents an environmental crisis for Utah and the West. There is diminished snowpack for Utah's mountains, the potential for increased dust storms laced with toxins, and billions in lost economic impact for the state.
Alarmed by the situation, the Utah State Legislature funded roughly a half-billion in water conservation measures that are just starting to be rolled out. Many of the bills passed this year by the legislature work to get more water into the lake and ensure future planning takes into consideration the impact on the Great Salt Lake.
"It’s going to take some time to implement the changes that we put in place. Hopefully, slowly, we’ll start to turn the dial and make a difference in bringing the lake back," said Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City, who has sponsored a number of water conservation measures in the legislature.
On Thursday, the state awarded $40 million to a pair of environmental groups to work explicitly to get water into the Great Salt Lake. The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society will oversee the money in a trust, working to either borrow or buy water rights for the lake. Money will also be spent on watershed and wildlife habitat restoration around the Great Salt Lake.
"It is a first step. It’s a positive step in the direction we need to take to keep water in the lake," said Vernon.
It was made possible by a bill run by House Speaker Brad Wilson, who praised the award to the environmental groups.
"Today’s selection of Audubon and TNC as co-managers of the Great Salt Lake Water Trust reflects both organizations' scientific expertise, non-profit credibility, commitment to collaboration, and long-standing conservation record at Great Salt Lake," Speaker Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a statement. "The establishment of the Great Salt Lake Water Trust is a crucial step in preserving the lake and its wetlands for the future of Utah."
Last year, the Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy partnered in a first-ever effort to secure water rights for the Great Salt Lake itself. They managed to get a 10-year donation of water rights from the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and Rio Tinto-Kennecott for the lake.
"We really want to start as soon as possible trying to work on transactions and other solutions for the lake," Marcelle Shoop, the Audubon Society's saline lakes program director, said Thursday.
Shoop told FOX 13 News that her organization has already received queries and begun preliminary talks to secure water for the lake. Rep. Ferry said that while water conservation policies are just starting to be rolled out right now (including expansion of secondary water metering for outdoor watering and other measures), lawmakers will look to ensure continued funding for the Great Salt Lake.
"I think continued funding, we as a state need to continue to invest in water conservation," he said. "We can’t just hang our hat and say 'Mission accomplished, we’re done.'"
Haskell said people can help the Great Salt Lake immediately by conserving water.
"If we can reduce our use, that’s a big one. We have over two million in the Great Salt Lake Basin," she said. "And if every single one of those two million people would reduce their use by even a few gallons? That adds up very quickly."
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.