SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah National Guard dropped three Blackhawk helicopters on Capitol Hill to pick up lawmakers, taking them on an aerial tour of the shrinking Great Salt Lake.
FOX 13 News accompanied them on the helicopter tour, which was sobering for many legislators who saw large swaths of exposed lake bed.
"It was worse than I thought," said House Minority Whip Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville. "I knew it was low but when you see it and you see the magnitude of the loss, it’s just heartbreaking."
The Great Salt Lake has shrunk nearly a foot as a result of the ongoing drought, climate change and water diversion. Before they left, lawmakers were given a briefing by the Audubon Society about areas that have been impacted.
"Being able to see open bodies of water as well as the dry mudflats, exposed lake bed, being able to see points of interest like Antelope Island, the causeway, hopefully will really inform their understanding of what’s at stake if we can’t figure out a way to solve the challenges facing the Great Salt Lake," said Marcelle Shoop, who oversees the Audubon Society's saline lakes program.
The trip doubled as a training exercise for the Guard. But one of the lawmakers who organized it hoped to persuade more of his colleagues to get behind a series of bipartisan bills and budget requests to fund it.
"It’s real important for people to see some of those emerging problems on the Great Salt Lake. It was great to get a firsthand view," said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek.
As FOX 13 News first reported on Monday, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, is personally running legislation to help save the Great Salt Lake. He has pushed lawmakers to support efforts to protect the massive water body.
Many lawmakers were already supportive of the Great Salt Lake bills, but some left their air tour determined to do more.
"I think we’ve got probably hundreds of different water policy issues we’re going to need to address. I will say this, I think we have got to rethink our overall water policy and water strategy in this state," said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi. "What we have is not working."
Sen. Anderegg said he wants to see more done to address agricultural and industrial water use. The senator, who previously sponsored bills on secondary water metering, said he estimated "hundreds" of bills needed to be run.
Shoop said she does not believe it is too late to save the Great Salt Lake.
"This dry winter we’re having has me worried, for sure. But I do think there’s a real desire and interest in trying to take steps to protect the lake as well as change the way we’re using water in this state," she told FOX 13 News. "And that’s going to take time."