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Saving the Great Salt Lake could cost billions, House Speaker says

Posted at 5:00 PM, Aug 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-02 20:13:58-04

FARMINGTON BAY, Utah  — The powerful Speaker of Utah's House of Representatives is planning more legislation to help save the rapidly shrinking Great Salt Lake.

"The lake? The lake’s struggling right now," Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said on Tuesday. "We’ve got thousands of square miles of exposed lake bed that are creating real risk for the residents of Utah in terms of toxic dust. The size of the lake is shortening our ski season and making our mountains have less snow. It’s a big concern. We’ve been in a prolonged, severe drought."

Speaker Wilson stopped by Farmington Bay, a wildlife refuge on the shores of the lake, for an interview with the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a coalition of local news outlets, academic and community groups that are calling attention to the situation facing the lake and possible solutions to save it. FOX 13 News is a member of the collaborative.

The House Speaker's own legislative district includes a large portion of the Great Salt Lake. Arguably, it is his biggest constituent (at least in terms of geographic size). The lake's future has also become an issue he has championed on Capitol Hill, with environmental groups praising the Republican House Speaker for his leadership on.

"The lake is shrinking faster and faster, and we’ve got to be paying a lot of attention to that," he said. "And the truth is, my top priority as Speaker right now is to address these water needs in the state and particularly the Great Salt Lake. The reason is, it’s going to dramatically affect the quality of life of Utahns if we don’t fix this. We’ve got to do a lot of things differently over the course of the next decade if we’re going to change the trajectory."

The Great Salt Lake has shrunk to its lowest levels in recorded history, driven by water diversion for Utah's booming population, drought and climate change. Earlier this year, the Utah State Legislature passed a series of water conservation bills to react to the state's ongoing drought emergency. The Speaker personally sponsored a bill to fund $40 million for a pair of environmental groups to work to secure water for the Great Salt Lake itself.

Speaker Wilson said they are just getting started.

"We're not at a point of no return," he said.

Fixing the lake could be massively expensive. Speaker Wilson said estimates are as much as $32 billion in costs if the lake goes dry, to say nothing of the health impacts and economic harms to the state.

"The proactive solution is billions. The reactive solution if we don’t try to fix it is tens and tens of billions. So let’s spend the billions over the course of the next five to 10 years and not worry about the $30-plus billion 20 years from now when it’s too late," he said.

Asked if the legislature was prepared to spend that much money, Speaker Wilson replied: "Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention and I think we’re in one of those situations where we’ll have to figure out how to do that."

Speaker Wilson said there will be more bills introduced in the 2023 legislative session dealing with water and the Great Salt Lake. He hopes for expanded secondary water metering, which tracks — and could potentially charge — for how much outdoor watering people do. Where it has been implemented has resulted in immediate savings once consumers realize how much water they're actually wasting.

The Speaker said he wanted to see more investment in agriculture optimization, which is using new technologies to water crops. Farmers who have started using the new tech have told FOX 13 News they have documented significant water savings.

"They still use two-thirds or three-fourths of the water in this state," Speaker Wilson said. "That’s where a small investment goes a long way."

Asked about the controversial Bear River Pipeline, Speaker Wilson said they have to balance competing interests. He acknowledged the pipeline could negatively impact the Great Salt Lake "unless it's planned very carefully." He said all ideas are on the table, including cloud seeding and even the idea of pipelines to get more water into the Great Salt Lake.

"We're going to be able to come up with strategies to balance everybody’s interests and make sure this is not being subordinated. Right now, this is second fiddle to everything else," he said, motioning toward the Great Salt Lake. "It can't be that way in the future."

The Speaker plans another summit to discuss solutions for the Great Salt Lake in October. At the last one, he brought together lawmakers, environmentalists, scientists and others to discuss issues surrounding the lake. He is also working with Sen. Mitt Romney, who has advanced legislation in Congress to study ways to save saline lakes and look at potential solutions.

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.