Collaborating on Great Salt Lake

Stakeholders find common ground on issues of mutual concern
Sunset on drying lakebed of Great Salt Lake

More than 75 people representing 47 different agencies, non-profits and other areas of interest met June 21 at the University of Utah’s College of Law to discuss future collaboration around Great Salt Lake. From the turnout alone, it was evident that many care about the lake and its future.

The interests and issues around Great Salt Lake are as diverse and complex as the watersheds that feed the lake ecosystem. Terminal saline lakes naturally fluctuate over time, but scientists have found that Great Salt Lake has lost 48 percent of its volume over the past 150 years. Water quantity influences many other aspects and uses at the lake, such as salinity levels, water quality, air quality, bird and wildlife habitat, recreation, agriculture, and industry. If future water diversions, drought, or climate conditions continue to reduce the supply of water to Great Salt Lake, it could result in a cascade of adverse effects.

When an issue of mutual concern brings people together, there’s an opportunity to collaborate on ideas to foster solutions.

This gathering entittled 'Great Salt Lake: What Can Collaboration Bring to the Table?' was the fifth in a series of Dialogues on Collaboration hosted by the University of Utah’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program and The Langdon Group as part of the Utah Program on Collaboration.

Danya Rumore, director of the EDR Program, kicked-off the event emphasizing that collaboration is not the same as compromise. “Collaboration yields something new and better,” she said and then illustrated the difference with an analogy: Compromise is like mixing hot and cold water, resulting in lukewarm water. On the other hand, collaboration is akin to mixing flour, eggs, milk, yeast, and other ingredients (plus a little “heat”) to make bread.

After a brief Collaboration 101 lesson on “interests” versus “positions,” four guest speakers presented different aspects of Great Salt Lake, helping lay a foundation for small discussion groups later in the afternoon.

Bonnie Baxter, professor of biology and director of Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College took the audience on a journey around the world looking at recent examples of large desiccated saline lake systems and talked about what’s at stake if Great Salt Lake water levels continue to decline.

Laura Ault, sovereign lands program manager for Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands spoke about the complexities of managing the lake bed, including mineral and other types of leasing, invasive species mitigation, and developing the Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan over a three-year period.

Jeff Richards, vice president and general counsel for Rocky Mountain Power, discussed upstream challenges and opportunities related to the Bear River–the largest source of freshwater input to the lake­–and the Bear River Compact among Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.

Water rights attorney Steve Clyde provided a brief perspective on Utah water law and possible adaptations to water policy, such as split season leases and water banking. That increased flexibility could offer market based opportunities for delivering more water to the lake.

After the presentations, participants divided into smaller groups to discuss collaboration opportunities and associated challenges. By the end of the four-hour event, the collective group had identified a number key issues of mutual concern and established initial ideas where collaboration could be initiated or strengthened moving into actionable steps. One idea was to increase awareness and understanding of water quantity issues among legislators and community members through direct experiences and field trips. 

“Addressing the challenges facing Great Salt Lake and its wetlands will take collaboratively designed solutions. Expanding participation and future dialogues like this are an important step in that direction,” said Marcelle Shoop, director of Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program.

Support for the dialogue on Great Salt Lake came from The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, Rocky Mountain Power, Rio Tinto Kennecott, Great Salt Lake Institute-Westminster College, Friends of Great Salt Lake, Clyde Snow Attorneys at Law, and Utah divisions of Water Resources, Water Quality, and Forestry, Fire, and State Lands.