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More reservoirs may run dry and the Great Salt Lake will continue to decline, state officials warn

Posted at 2:50 PM, May 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-19 08:31:41-04

SALT LAKE CITY  — More reservoirs across Utah may run dry and the Great Salt Lake will continue to decline, state officials warned lawmakers on Wednesday.

During a briefing before the Utah State Legislature's Natural Resources Interim Committee, lawmakers were told that 99% of Utah remains in severe or extreme drought. That's actually an improvement over last year, when a huge chunk of the state was in "exceptional" drought — the worst category.

Governor Spencer Cox has already declared a state of emergency for drought.

"This may be the last good news we get," quipped Brian Steed, the executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources.

Utah drought situation

The reservoir situation is not looking good right now. Snowpack is 25% below normal and peaked two weeks early. Already, a handful of reservoirs in central and southern Utah are below 20% capacity.

"We’re very concerned those reservoirs will run dry," Steed said. "In addition to that, closer to the Wasatch Front, we remain concerned about the Weber system."

Reservoir map

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which covers five counties in northern Utah, has already imposed a mandatory once a week watering and has asked residential customers to cut indoor use by 10%. More strict measures could be taken, Steed warned.

The Great Salt Lake continues to decline to a new historic low, Steed told lawmakers, leaving 57 square miles of lake bed exposed. That creates its own problems impacting Utah's snowpack, creating toxic dust storms and causing billions in potential economic harm to the state.

"These are really uncharted waters that we’re sailing in and unfortunately we just didn’t see the lake come up much this year," Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, told FOX 13 News following the briefing. "It’s going to go down and set new record lows and by a good margin this year."

Hundreds of scientists, lawmakers and environmentalists are all participating in a three-day summit at the University of Utah hosted by the group Friends of Great Salt Lake to discuss the health and future of the lake. The forum is discussing the problems facing the Great Salt Lake and what can be done to fix it.

"More people are paying attention to the lake now than they have in the past," said Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake.

The Utah State Legislature passed a number of water conservation bills and spent millions on ways to get more water into the Great Salt Lake.

"There are good policies, good laws that are now available," de Freitas said. "But again, climate change, mega-drought, population growth, how we translate our water use our behavior into making water available for the system, we all have to do our part."

Rep. Hawkes said the state was just starting to implement what lawmakers passed, but he called on Utahns to do their part by conserving water.

"In terms of what ordinary Utahns can do? We need to learn to get along with less," he said. "In your homes, inside, outside in your yards, use less. Farms use less, businesses use less. We just have to find a way to use less water if we’re going to need I would say for new uses and future growth but even existing uses and for resources like the Great Salt Lake that are so important to our state and its future."

On Tuesday, FOX 13 News reported on a legislative commission requesting a study on the idea of a pipeline to take water from the Pacific Ocean across California and Nevada into the Great Salt Lake. Some lawmakers said it is an idea worth at least exploring to see if it's even feasible. Reacting to the report, de Freitas raised concerns about the cost and the impact and hoped lawmakers would focus on more local solutions.

"Politically, I always wonder about taking water from another system to bring into the lake when I think we could translate backyard issues like the proposed Bear River water development, change that expectation to be more realistic about how we can incorporate that system into the Great Salt Lake," she told FOX 13 News.