Watershed Moment for Addressing Great Salt Lake’s Declining Water Levels

Collaborative solutions (and legislation) for protecting the Western Hemisphere’s largest lake.

Editor’s Note (3/27/2019): this story has been updated to reflect passage of Concurrent Resolution HCR010 by the Utah Legislature and signing by the Governor of Utah.

resolution adopted unanimously by the Utah Legislature and signed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert recognizes the critical importance of ensuring adequate water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.  The resolution sets the stage for a collaborative process among a wide-range of stakeholders to develop policy recommendations and other solutions for maintaining a healthy and sustainable lake system.

In building support for the Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake (HCR010), Rep. Timothy D. Hawkes (R-18), the measure’s sponsor, said Utah must be forward-thinking. Losing Great Salt Lake, Hawkes said, cannot be an option.

The lake system supports more than 7,000 jobs, generates an economic output of $1.3 billion annually through a wide range of businesses and activities.

Although water levels vary naturally over time, during the last 150-170 years, tributary inflows to Great Salt Lake reduced significantly—as much as 39 percent in recent years. This led to roughly an 11-foot drop in lake level and exposed many square miles of dry lakebed, according to recent reports.

Drying lake systems in the West and around the globe have produced devastating effects, leaving many communities with limited and costly options for mitigating the negative impacts from dust, harm to birds and other wildlife habitats, and loss of livelihoods. The resolution acknowledges that the best way Utahns can prepare to avoid such serious challenges is by taking steps now.

Continued declining water levels for Great Salt Lake, particularly in the face of ongoing and future water management decisions, can lead to irreversible impacts affecting the health of the lake and its wetlands. The resolution notes that current downward trajectory “also poses a threat to Utah's economy, public health and welfare, air quality, environmental resources, and the ability to provide water to meet Utah's growing economy.” This is the case whether referring to the “lake effect” that provides an important contribution to the snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains, or the need to avert public health issues that could arise from dust generated off a dry lakebed.

There is robust and broad-based support for the resolution, an idea that originated with the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. Audubon has been actively engaged in supporting this resolution, along with a wide range of interests, including the brine shrimp industry, mineral industry, publicly-owned wastewater treatment operations, hunting and recreation, and conservation groups. Agriculture also plays an important role in the lake’s watersheds and in some areas irrigation return flows are a valuable source of water for lake wetlands. Having agriculture interests at the table helping develop recommendations will be valuable.

A number of members of the House of Representatives rose to speak in favor of the resolution before the chamber adopted the resolution. On the Senate floor, sponsor Sen. Scott D. Sandall (R-17), noted that, “[I]t is vitally important” that proactive and collaborative steps be taken to protect the lake and its water supplies, while balancing the need for other water uses, including agriculture.

The lake with its extensive complex of wetlands provides some of the most important habitat in the world for millions of migratory birds. Great Salt Lake is home to five Global Important Bird Areas (IBAs). These are sites of international significance for birds and biodiversity, and at Great Salt Lake they provide habitat for close to 56 percent of the world population of American Avocets and 40 percent of Wilson’s Phalarope. The lake also is also an important site within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, which stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

And in the West, where other saline lakes are under threat from loss of water and changing habitats, the health of these migratory habitats is a concern, heightening the need to address Great Salt Lake’s issues proactively.