INSIDE SOURCES

Great Salt Lake could use your help now, says expert

Jan 18, 2022, 6:27 PM
Great Salt Lake low water...
The Great Salt Lake near the Saltair Marina (Photo: Utah Department of Natural Resources)
(Photo: Utah Department of Natural Resources)

SALT LAKE CITY — The Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and one of our state’s icons. But over the years water levels have been dropping, reaching record lows last year, while Utah is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation — and one of the driest as about a third of the state suffers in extreme drought.

U.S. Drought Monitor: Utah

Nick Schou, Utah Government Affairs manager at Western Resource Advocates, talked with guest host Marty Carpenter about what can be done to preserve this wonder of nature, which is fed by the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers and has no outlet.

Concerns of the Great Salt Lake

“Why should we be concerned about the Great Salt Lake?” Carpenter asked.

Every year as many as 10 million birds visit the Great Salt Lake, Schou said. It makes the Great Salt Lake a critical stopover point for migrating birds amid desert. 

“So, it’s incredibly important for animals, not just in Utah, but far beyond,” he said. 

Activities on the lake, such as mineral extraction, bring $1.5 billion worth of revenues into the state of Utah.

However, water development during the last 150 years has reduced river inflows to Great Salt Lake by an estimated 39 percent, resulting in an 11-foot drop in the lake level and 48 percent reduction in volume, according to Audubon.org.

Great Salt Lake: A human-made disaster

 The lake is relatively shallow compared to freshwater lakes. At median water level, the lake is generally less than 15 feet deep.

But Schou said if the damming and diversions upstream on its tributaries continue, the lakebed could be exposed.

“If the lake were to dry up, it exposes vast tracts of lake that could then be blown into big dust storms, carrying toxic minerals that are in the lake sediments that can create an environmental disaster unlike anything Utah has ever seen before,” he said.

“There’s an instance in California where they’ve essentially been dealing with very similar issues,” Carpenter said.

On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada in California, there was once a body of water called Owens Lake. There steamboats hauled ore across the lake from mines in the Inyo Range.

But beginning in 1913, water was diverted from the Owens River to Los Angeles. By 1926, Owens Lake was dry. The dry bed of the lake has produced enormous amounts of windblown dust, creating the single largest source of PM-10 dust in the United States, according to Geochange.

“They have now spent billions of dollars to mitigate the dust storms that have created really awful health impacts on communities around the lake. You know, asthma, birth defects, things like that. So, it’s a really serious issue. And it’s something that we need to address now,” said Schou.

Stop wasting water

“What are some things that from your perspective we can do to address this?” Carpenter asked.

“We have some of the highest per person water use in the United States. We can really do a lot more to tighten that up,” Schou said.

The average Utah resident using 167 gallons per day in and around their home, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). The average household uses about 70% of their water outside the home, said Schou.
 
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has proposed using $500 million in federal funding — about 2 percent of the state’s overall budget — on water conservation projects. About half of that money would go to measuring the amount of water used on agriculture, which can significantly reduce water usage, according to The Hill.
 
“We can really do a lot to help farmers get more efficient in the agricultural sector. That’s where we’re using about 80% of the water in the whole state that we divert,” Schou said.
 
The House GOP caucus is prioritizing “action to conserve, optimize and preserve” water in the 2022 session, according to Deseret News.  These priorities include:
  1. Implement secondary-water metering statewide.
  2. Invest in agricultural optimization.
  3. Invest in rural drinking water infrastructure.
  4. Preserve the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake.

Weber Basin Water Conservancy District saw reductions of 22% to 40% per customer in secondary water use as a result of metering and communications with their customers about their lawn’s actual water needs compared to what the water user had been applying, according to Western Resource Advocates.

From washing your car to washing your clothes, here are tips you can take to save water in and out of the home.

Related:

Utah governor outlines four ways to conserve water in drought

Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson can be heard weekdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app. 

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Great Salt Lake could use your help now, says expert