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New Great Salt Lake commissioner warns of 'tough choices' ahead to save the lake

Posted at 2:24 PM, Aug 16, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — As he crafts a plan to help save it, newly-appointed Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed warned lawmakers of some "tough choices" ahead.

"We're going to have to consider the possibility that we have to manage the lake and keep that level higher than it has been in the past," he told members of the Utah State Legislature's powerful Legislative Water Development Commission last week. "It’s going to take an effort and a sustained effort from all of us."

The legislature passed a law, creating the position of Great Salt Lake Commissioner to act as a point-person for the lake and its recovery. Under the law, he has the power to override state agencies' decision-making powers if it means protecting the lake. Steed answers to the governor, House Speaker and Senate President. His first task is coming up with a plan for aiding the lake's recovery by Nov. 30.

The Great Salt Lake dropped to its lowest level in recorded history last year as a result of upstream water diversion, drought and climate change. It rose 5 1/2 feet this year thanks to a record-breaking snowpack over the winter. The lake levels peaked in June and it has been declining again because of hotter temperatures and water diversions in the rivers that feed into it.

A shrinking Great Salt Lake presents an ecological catastrophe for northern Utah with toxic dust storms (arsenic is naturally occurring in the lake bed); reduced snowpack; and impacts to public health, wildlife and the state's economy. The Utah State Legislature has reacted with alarm, passing a number of bills aimed at water conservation and reversing the lake's declines as well as spending roughly $1 billion over the past couple of years.

Steed was questioned by commission members about what he is planning to do. Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, noted how much money the legislature has invested and questioned if it has raised the lake levels.

"If we stopped watering everything... all outdoor watering the whole basin, what would that (do)?" he said, sounding skeptical of some of the efforts. "I would guess it would be less than what the lake has risen as a result of snowpack," he said.

"I've seen studies that show that conversation can make a real difference," Steed replied.

Steed cautioned his Nov. 30 plan will not be complete. In fact, he told lawmakers he anticipates it to evolve to changing circumstances surrounding the Great Salt Lake.

"What I can do is go to general principles and general approaches that we know have shown to bring water to the lake and maintain lake levels," he said.

Steed warned the commission that without state action, they could face federal intervention with endangered bird species at risk and airshed problems. Northern Utah has already faced federal issues with its air quality.

Asked by FOX 13 News what "tough choices" the state may have to make, Steed said: "The lake reached its low point because of a combination of factors including drought and human uses. If we need to keep the lake higher, we’re going to need to evaluate how we behave in the future and how we can make sure the lake gets the water it needs and we get the water we need."

Pressed on who has to sacrifice to help the lake, Steed told FOX 13 News: "Hopefully, no one loses totally. I think if we’re a little more mindful on how we use water both in the residential as well as in the agriculture sector, I think we can make due with the water we have."

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.