LAYTON, Utah — House Speaker Brad Wilson convened a bipartisan summit of lawmakers, environmentalists, climate scientists, farmers, academics and others with interests in the Great Salt Lake to discuss ways to save it.
"The Great Salt Lake is in trouble," he told the crowd at the beginning of the summit.
Speaker Wilson, R-Kaysville, said a continually declining Great Salt Lake threatens Utah's health, environment and economy.
"The Great Salt Lake is one of our greatest natural resources. And the lack of the Great Salt Lake is one of our greatest threats," he said.
The lake, one of the largest in North America, has dropped 11-feet. Scientists from the University of Utah warned the crowd of toxic dust that could threaten public health over time, declining snow pack and water from lake-effect generated storms and billions in lost economic opportunity. In addition to climate and health, the lake is a refuge for millions of migratory birds.
"We don’t have time to lose. We really need to expedite all of the measures we’re able to in order to make a change for the Great Salt Lake ecosystem," said Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the declining lake is something every Utahn should care about. The crowd was also told the lake itself generates $1.3 billion annually in economic output from mineral extraction and brine shrimp industries. That's in addition to extending Utah's multi-billion dollar ski season at least two more weeks as a result of lake-effect snow.
If the state was forced to try to reverse damage to the Great Salt Lake — it would cost as much as $2 billion a year.
In an interview with FOX 13, Speaker Wilson conceded that many have taken the Great Salt Lake for granted for the past 20 years. But policy makers and environmentalists believe it's not too late.
"If we get serious about it, I am a firm believer we can make a difference," said Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville.
The legislature is poised to advance a number of bills on water conservation, agriculture optimization and ways to get more water into the Great Salt Lake. Environmentalists have been successful in securing some water rights for the lake, but want more to be done. There are also proposed policy shifts like re-thinking how water is considered "wasted" because the lake is a terminal basin.
One of the biggest things is a $50 million funding priority from the Utah State Legislature to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake. Environmental groups have praised the Speaker's spending priority for the lake, as well as a budget proposal from Governor Spencer Cox.
"Its time has come and I think this is the responsible thing to do," de Freitas said. "I’m very optimistic that it will make a difference."
Marcelle Shoop of the Audubon Society said it was encouraging to see the legislature recognize the urgency of the problem, calling for swift passage of policies.
"We are grateful to Speaker Wilson, Rep. Hawkes, and other Utah officials for their leadership in addressing the state’s future vibrancy and health," she said in a statement.
Rep. Hawkes said Utahns will need to continue to conserve water in the face of growth and drought.
"We have to do better in how we use water in agriculture, we have to get better in how we use water in homes and businesses," he said. "The good news is if we do that it will keep the lake in sustainable levels."
Policies will be advanced at both a state and local level, said Mayor Mendenhall.
"Water conservation is the new norm. And with the unpredictability of weather events and water availability that we have experienced and we know we will continue to experience to some degree? This is the way we need to operate," she said.