Great Salt Lake still at risk despite influx of snow and cash

“He’s completely dead wrong about what we did and the impact it’s going to have on the lake,” said Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Republican, saying Abbott was an “alarmist.” 

“This is year two of what I think is going to have to be a 10-year effort,” Wilson said. “We accomplished everything we set out to do and more. I feel really good about what we’ve done and where we’re at with the lake.” 

Last fall, the Great Salt Lake’s water levels reached an all-time low. More concerning, the lake’s salinity soared to levels that left scientists unsure how much longer the creatures at the base of the food web — brine flies and brine shrimp adapted to extreme conditions — could hang on. 

In January, Abbott and other scientists and conservationists released a report saying the lake needed “emergency measures” to stop the “ongoing collapse” and that the “lake as we know it is on track to disappear in five years.”

The consequences are huge. 

Each year, some 10 million migratory birds — of more than 300 species — depend on the lake’s habitat to survive. Low water levels threaten several industries, including mining companies that evaporate lake brine to extract metals and commercial producers that farm brine shrimp, which are used in aquaculture.  

As the lake dries up, more unhealthy dust is expected to blow into communities near the lake. Scientists are concerned because the dust contains toxic metals

In January, scientists and politicians said this winter could be a turning point.

Utah’s accounts were flush with billions in unexpected revenues, and lawmakers promised they would spend generously on the lake. The good snow year portended a boost for lake levels.

In his budget, Cox proposed that Utah spend more than $560 million on water improvements, including $100 million to address the emergency and buy short-term agricultural water leases and “shepherd” that water to the Great Salt Lake. 

When the legislative dust settled in March, lawmakers agreed to spend well north of $400 million in ongoing and one-time funding for the Great Salt Lake and water conservation, according to a list of budget appropriations

Lawmakers used $200 million to fund a program to optimize agricultural water use and invested in cloud seeding and water measuring infrastructure. They funded dust and air quality studies and created a new state office: the Great Salt Lake commissioner.

Lawmakers passed a bill to encourage sod removal and efficient landscaping, a bill to ban water reuse in the Great Salt Lake Basin so more water flows into the lake, and a bill to ensure the state has emergency powers if ecological or salinity thresholds are crossed. 

Lawmakers chose not to set a specific target for lake levels or spend millions of dollars to boost lake levels by buying up short-term water rights. 

Some argued such emergency measures weren’t necessary.

“We had an emergency plan in place that would have gotten enough water, in my opinion, to save the ecology” of the lake, state Sen. Scott Sandall said during a recorded media event. “Mother Nature helped us out. We didn’t have to pull that lever for emergency use.”

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