SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson took lawmakers and state officials on a boat tour of the Great Salt Lake, calling attention to the urgency of its decline.
"It’s hard to appreciate how low it is when you haven’t seen it," she said in an interview afterward with FOX 13 News.
They departed from a nearly-empty marina. Most sailboats have been pulled out because water levels are so low. The boats headed out toward Antelope Island, then Stansbury Island. Along the way, representatives from Utah's Department of Natural Resources answered questions about the Great Salt Lake and its importance to northern Utah's entire ecosystem and what a declining lake means to the state's future.
"I think one of the things that most impressed me today is just how impactful the Great Salt Lake is to everything we do in Utah," Lt. Governor Henderson said. "To our water, to our air quality, to our quality of life. It’s something we haven’t talked enough about."
The lake has dropped 11-feet since it was first measured back in the 1800s. Last year, it hit a historic low. This year, the Great Salt Lake is projected to drop to an all-new historic low, said Laura Vernon, the Great Salt Lake coordinator for Utah's Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.
"We believe the lake has peaked right now at about 4191.0," she told FOX 13 News. "We think it will go down another two feet."
The shrinking Great Salt Lake has been blamed on a number of problems including water diversion for development and impacts of a changing climate. The lake's decline threatens Utah's snowpack, the ecosystem for millions of migratory birds and billions in economic harm as a result of lost industry. The exposed lake bed has arsenic in it, bringing with it the potential for toxic dust storms blowing into populated areas.
The Utah State Legislature this year advanced a number of bills to try to protect the Great Salt Lake. Future water development plans must take into consideration the impact to the lake, more emphasis is on water conservation in development and agricultural use. House Speaker Brad Wilson personally ran a bill to spend $40 million to try to get more water into the lake and lawmakers took an aerial tour during the session to see the lake's decline. For many, it was the first time they had seen it in years.
"I think the legislature will step up," said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who was on the tour.
Rep. Snider acknowledged some new urgency, but said people are more aware of the Great Salt Lake's importance. He said he expects lawmakers on Utah's Capitol Hill to run more legislation to protect it.
"I think so, but I also think it’s what is left to do is something that we can handle," he said. "Yes, it's bad. Yes, it's bleak. But now we’re talking about it."
Environmental groups and state officials are in agreement that the Great Salt Lake has not passed a point of no return. Vernon said increased awareness about the situation facing the Great Salt Lake is helping. She said Utahns taking steps to conserve water will also help.
"But then on a bigger picture to encourage cities and counties, water conservancy districts, agriculture users to think about how they use and use water more wisely because we need the water to make it down here," she said.