NewsGreat Salt Lake Collaborative


To help the Great Salt Lake, Utah may pay farmers to not grow crops

Posted at 4:39 PM, Nov 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-30 13:43:40-05

SALT LAKE CITY — As the Great Salt Lake moves closer to ecosystem collapse, the state of Utah is taking steps to try to quickly get more water into it, including paying farmers to stop growing certain high water using crops.

"The salinity has gotten so high on the lake that we are going to see ecosystem collapse," Joel Ferry, the executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources, said in an interview with FOX 13 News on Tuesday.

Ferry briefed members of the Utah State Legislature's Water Development Commission on the lake situation. He said the good news is levels have stabilized, but it is two feet below its old historic low. With the reduced levels, the salinity has reduced brine shrimp and flies, which impacts wildlife. An exposed lake bed also reduces snowpack in northern Utah and dust storms that blow into the Wasatch Front carry toxins in them.

Governor Spencer Cox has halted any new water diversions in the future into the Great Salt Lake (but his proclamation continues to allow existing water rights holders to continue to divert). The state is now exploring a number of measures to quickly get water into the lake, including paying farmers to fallow crops next year and send the water into the Great Salt Lake. Agriculture is the state's top water user. The Great Salt Lake has declined as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate.

"This one would be an immediate shock to the system, an immediate benefit to the system," said Ferry, who is also a farmer near Corinne.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources intended to seek up to a $100 million appropriation from the legislature to pay farmers to stop growing certain crops.

"Wheat or corn or those annuals, some of it will be alfalfa. A farmer can say 'I’ll let my alfalfa go dormant,'" he said, adding: "This is going to be more of that base crop that is the largest consumer of water."

But the Utah Farm Bureau, a member group made up of farmers and ranchers across the state, wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea.

"I can’t even imagine just getting up and not planting a crop, especially for us," said Ron Gibson, a Weber County farmer and head of the Utah Farm Bureau. "We have to grow feed for our cows. If we take money to fallow that crop, what are we going to do?"

Gibson said farmers want to be part of the solution to help the Great Salt Lake, but he worried the idea would harm things down the food chain. The Utah Farm Bureau does support efforts to fund agriculture water optimization, which is using new technologies to allow farmers to grow crops with less water.

"It seems like agriculture takes a lot of those bullets and our problem is more and more everyday because agriculture is less," he said.

In addition to paying farmers to fallow, Utah's Department of Natural Resources said it was also planning to expand cloud-seeding this winter, seeking an expanded funding of up to a million dollars. But one of the cheapest and biggest things is already seeing success — conservation.

Utahns have stepped up and curbed their water use, Ferry said, and it is showing signs of working.

"Our reservoirs are more full today than they would be otherwise. We have more water in our reservoirs, more water in the Great Salt Lake than if we had just lived as if life was normal last year," he said. "So it does make a difference and it adds up."

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