FARMINGTON BAY, Utah — As the airboats moved through the marshes, hundreds of birds took flight.
Senator Mitt Romney marveled at them.
"You fly by this area on commercial aircraft and you look down, you see the water but you don’t recognize how many birds come through here," he said. "Ten million birds a year come through here and feed off the brine shrimp and other aquatic life. As this lake disappears, these birds have no future."
Off in the distance, dust was blowing off the dry lake bed into Salt Lake City.
"Sending dust right towards the Wasatch Front," Speaker Wilson, R-Kaysville, said. "That dust storm doesn’t need to be here if we had more water in the lake, you wouldn’t see that happening. It underscores for me and Sen. Romney, we have to act."
Speaker Wilson and Sen. Romney led state officials and members of the Utah State Legislature on a tour of the lake, talking about the peril facing it and potential solutions. They spoke to FOX 13 News while taking airboats out onto the lake.
Where it used to be feet deep? It is now inches.
The Great Salt Lake is at its lowest level in recorded history, presenting an ecological crisis for the state. The shrinking lake means reduced snowpack, dust storms laced with arsenic and other toxic minerals that are naturally occurring in the lake, reduced economic benefits from the lake and harmful impacts to wildlife.
"We definitely are crossing new thresholds in terms of lowest levels of the lake since Brigham Young came into the valley," said Speaker Wilson. "But we’ve also crossed a threshold where the amount of commitment and resources going into the lake and its levels are unprecedented."
Sen. Romney has passed a bill through the Senate to allocate $10 million authorizing a federal study of the problems facing the lake and potential solutions.
"What you’re going to see is a hierarchy of the kinds of things we can do and they’re going to be the things that are the least expensive to those that are very, very expensive," he told FOX 13 News. "I hope the least expensive things, which is conservation of various kinds, bringing new technology for agriculture, those kinds of things will allow us to solve the problem here at the lake."
The Utah State Legislature this year allocated a half-billion for water conservation measures, including $40 million to a pair of environmental groups, creating a trust to secure water for the Great Salt Lake. They can buy or lease water from rights-holders in the area. In a recent interview with FOX 13 News, Speaker Wilson said saving the lake could ultimately cost billions.
"The half a billion dollars we invested in water and the Great Salt Lake last legislative session is just a good start. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done year after year to make sure that we can protect this resource, but also protect Utahns from the damage that can come if we don’t do something about it," he said Friday.
Sen. Romney said it didn't matter the cost.
"We’ve got to find answers and then take the action, regardless of the cost," he told FOX 13 News.
State leaders have called on Utahns to conserve water in the ongoing drought and people have responded, cutting use and stretching billions of gallons of water.
Laura Vernon, the Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said there are signs progress is being made. With all the attention paid to the lake recently, she said people have been stepping up to offer support, including their water shares.
"We’ve fielded numerous calls, emails, interested parties who would like to take advantage of the water trust," she said. "We’re hopeful that trust in addition to all the support we’re seeing here today will benefit the Great Salt Lake."
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.