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Lawmakers look at measures to save the Great Salt Lake

Posted at 3:09 PM, Dec 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-29 20:02:17-05

SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Brad Wilson will bring lawmakers and other government policy officials together next week at a summit on preserving and protecting the Great Salt Lake.

The massive salt water lake, which is a huge contributor to northern Utah's ecosystem, has hit a record low. It's now 11 feet below what scientists believe it should be and dust storms could spell trouble for the Wasatch Front. Speaker Wilson, R-Kaysville, whose district includes a large part of the lake, has been pushing for efforts to preserve and protect it. A series of bills will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session.

"That’s kind of the canary in the coal mine," said Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City. "When we see this year the Great Salt Lake hit record low levels and we look at the impact that will have on our snow pack, which is our water source for next year."

Rep. Ferry has introduced House Bill 33, which expands the use of "instream flow" by allowing for water rights holders to sort-of "rent" water that could eventually go into the Great Salt Lake.

"If a farmer has a water right and he’s recognizing that it’s going to be a drought year, maybe rather than use the entire flow he’s granted or he has a right to use? He can cut that back a little bit and a conservation group or the state or the federal government, whoever that may be can pay him and say 'Hey, we want so many acre feet of your water to stay in the stream' and it’ll work it’s way through the rivers and make its way to the Great Salt Lake," he told FOX 13 on Wednesday.

Because it's a terminal basin, water that goes into the Great Salt Lake is technically considered "wasted" which has added to the pressure of using more water upstream. One lawmaker is exploring changing that legal definition to help the lake.

Environmental groups have been supportive of the concept of instream flow and other bills in the works to help the lake. But Denise Cartwright, a founder of Save Our Great Salt Lake, said she believed more could be done.

"What I’m seeing is a lot of baby steps, when what we need right now are huge leaps and bounds if we want to save the Great Salt Lake," she said in an interview with FOX 13. "Great Salt Lake needs two million acre feet of water annually permanently protected."

Rep. Ferry said legislation like this is a start in helping to protect the lake. There are also water conservation bills being introduced in the legislature for things like agricultural optimization (utilizing new technologies to grow crops with less water).

"I’m really encouraged by the discussions," he said. "I believe it’s not too late for us to make a difference and for us to do things that will not only save the Great Salt Lake but will save our way of life."

Next week, Speaker Wilson will bring together policy makers, scientists, and lawmakers to discuss policies to help protect the lake. But a copy of panelists and speakers provided to FOX 13 ahead of the Speaker's summit shows environmental and agricultural groups will not be giving any presentations to lawmakers, though a number of them including Friends of the Great Salt Lake, the Nature Conservancy, the Great Salt Lake Institute and the Utah Waterfowl Association will be attending and are listed as partners in the event. Similarly, agriculture groups like the Utah Farm Bureau are also not involved in presentations. Rep. Ferry is a farmer in his day job and will give a preview of his pending bill.

Based on topic discussions, the summit appears to be heavily focused on policy and what specifically Utah lawmakers can do to protect the Great Salt Lake. Representatives from Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power will give a presentation on the cautionary tale of Owens Lake, which was drained to provide water to California and was left a toxic dust bowl.

The list of presenters for the summit also includes lawmakers, climate scientists at the University of Utah, the head of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, local water conservancy districts, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands and and Utah Division of Water Resources.

Only one environmental group — the Audubon Society — is moderating a panel. Marcelle Shoop, the head of the national Audubon Society's saline lakes program, will oversee a panel discussion on water conservation and water planning in the Great Salt Lake. The Audubon Society recently partnered with other environmental groups and Rio Tinto Kennecott to secure water rights for the lake itself.

"Many wanted to be involved in this event and we did our best to include everyone. With the focus being on hosting an informational event, not an advocacy event, we invited researchers and scientists who study the data professionally, public policy experts who administer the policies that actually govern the lake, and environmental groups," Speaker Wilson's office told FOX 13 in a statement. "In addition to the speakers listed on the agenda, over a dozen groups and organizations will set up booths to mingle with attendees and present in that form."

Cartwright said she would like to see more public input in the Speaker's summit. The Speaker's Office said the summit was by invitation, but will stream it for the public to see online.

Save Our Great Salt Lake is planning a rally on Jan. 15 at the Utah State Capitol to call on the legislature to take more action to protect the Great Salt Lake.

"If the lake dries up this is going to affect everyone who lives along the Wasatch Front. This is going to affect our air quality, this is going to affect millions of migratory birds that rely on the lake," Cartwright said. "We don’t have time to be focusing on baby steps and marketing speak. We need action and we need serious action."

See the agenda for the Speaker's Great Salt Lake Summit here: