UTAH DROUGHT

What role can history play in saving the Great Salt Lake, solving Utah’s water woes?

Nov 16, 2022, 1:03 PM | Updated: Oct 26, 2023, 2:06 pm

With water levels hovering around their lowest point on record, officials said they are finding mor...

FILE: A sail boat is launched at the Great Salt Lake sometime in the 1870s. The Great Salt Lake and Utah's Water History were the primary focus of the 70th annual Utah State Historical Society Conference held in Provo. (Utah State History)

(Utah State History)

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 history and the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

PROVO, Utah  — John Wesley Powell offered a poignant message for Western U.S. communities when he was the featured speaker in a room full of developers and government leaders at a major irrigation conference held in Los Angeles in October 1893.

Powell, then director of the U.S. Geological Survey, started off strong, receiving applause from those listening to him, noted Greg Smoak, a professor of history and director of the American West Center at the University of Utah. The mood quickly shifted to “downright hostility” as Powell began to caution his audience about the water limitations in the West, Smoak notes.

“There is not enough water to irrigate all the lands … There is but a small portion of the irrigable land which can be irrigated when all the water, every drop of water, is utilized,” Powell warned the crowd, adding that he foresaw a future filled with battles over water rights.

Water message falls on deaf ears

This wound up being the last time Powell ever spoke on the issue in such a public setting. As Smoak points out, the room quickly turned on the legendary explorer and 19th-century figure. His words were drowned with jeers and hisses. He stepped down from the job the following year.

William Mulholland was among those in the crowd protesting Powell’s message, retorting that 500,000 inches of water in California’s Owens Valley “went to waste” by not going toward irrigation that summer. Mulholland would go on to oversee Los Angeles’ water projects, designing the Los Angeles Aqueduct that drained Owens Lake dry and created an environmental situation California is still handling nearly a century later.

His career ultimately ended when one of his projects, the St. Francis Dam, collapsed in 1928, causing a flood that killed hundreds of people.

This anecdote isn’t a recipe for success

While this cautionary tale may resonate today as the West deals with a 1,200-year-old “megadrought,” Smoak contends that his historical anecdote shouldn’t be viewed as the perfect game plan for how to tackle the situation now.

“History can never provide an absolute roadmap. Every situation is going to have particular facets that you can’t just look in the past and say, ‘Here’s a perfectly meaningful example that tells us exactly what we’re going to do,'” Smoak says. “On the other hand, human beings have encountered similar situations in the past in American history and other places and so on.”

This context can be very important when coming up with solutions to any situation, such as helping the struggling Great Salt Lake, adds Jennifer Ortiz, executive director at the Utah Division of State History. That’s why, as Utah continues through one of its worst droughts in recent history and legislators spend more time dwelling on conservation than ever, the division opted to make water the primary focus of its 70th annual history conference Wednesday.

How stories from the past help 

State historians made water and the Great Salt Lake the primary focus of the event because of the topic’s relevance today amid the drought.

“It became a really important issue for us to address in a historical lens,” Ortiz said. “Having the opportunity to bring people together — water managers, historians — it was just an amazing opportunity to focus on water history and water challenges in our state.”

This year’s conference featured a wide-ranging view of water history in and around Utah, from previous efforts to corral water in the West to the impact of water battles and projects on Native American land. Some presentations also offered an outlook of the future based on other examples from the past, including Owens Lake, while others looked at the cultural significance of the Great Salt Lake in history.

Smoak served as the keynote speaker, providing a broader overview of Utah’s and the West’s water challenges since the pioneer settlement. The point of these presentations was to “enlighten” both old and new residents through a deeper review of the state’s water history.

Though history is imperfect and can’t provide a correct answer as to what does and doesn’t work, it can provide plenty of context. Ortiz said the main goal is to showcase context for residents and state leaders as they ponder solutions to the drought and the Great Salt Lake. She believes history has the power to provide this for all sorts of issues.

“Maybe we can’t solve the issue of affordable housing or water scarcity, but we sure can provide the historical context for how we got here today,” she said. “We have the primary resources, maps that show us the decline of water of the Great Salt Lake or how water rights have shifted over time. We have those sources to provide.”

What history can teach about water and the Great Salt Lake

Owens Lake seemed to be the historic example that reappeared throughout the day. The lake, located on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range, may serve as the prime example of what can happen to the Great Salt Lake even if Smoak acknowledges it’s not “absolutely” the same situation.

It’s a terminal saline lake much like the Great Salt Lake but mostly dried out by the 1920s as a result of water diverted to the Los Angeles area. The lake’s drying ultimately created “the nation’s worst source of PM10 pollution, leading to federal regulatory controls and an extensive monitoring system,” the Deseret News reported, as communities by the lake were exposed to similar toxic dust that the drying Great Salt Lake lakebed holds.

The biggest difference is the number of people by the lakes — about 40,000 near Lake Owens compared to 2.6 million by the Great Salt Lake. Therein lies one of the elements that change the situation, making it less absolute but also impactful to more people. The cause is also different, as the diversions of the Great Salt Lake are coming from communities by the lake and not from an outsider creating a large aqueduct system.

However, there’s a lot to pull from this example, too. Mulholland’s job was to address the massively growing Los Angeles population.  And that required large engineering solutions to address the sheer number of people flocking to the city. It’s similar to the growth of the Wasatch Front now, which is possible through projects that pull from the Colorado River and divert water from entering the Great Salt Lake.

If we don’t actually think critically about (the problems), we’re not going to get anywhere. We’re just going to repeat the same stories.

–Greg Smoak, professor of history and director of the American West Center at the University of Utah

So what’s Smoak’s takeaway from this? He believes shaking off a belief that governments can engineer themselves out of every obstacle is the biggest challenge moving forward. Los Angeles engineered several other water systems after draining Owens Lake. But it’s still not enough to “answer the demand” as it also struggles from the drought today, Smoak points out.

Zeroing in on smaller solutions to help the Great Salt Lake

With large-scale ideas thrown around for the Great Salt Lake, like a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake, he sees some of the same engineering rhetoric today. There are many other projects in the state in the pipeline aimed at addressing water needs across Utah, as well.

It’s why Smoak returns back to the message Powell delivered back in 1893. His speech may not provide a perfect roadmap either because so much has changed in the West since then. And, it’s hard to deny the benefits of the existing engineering projects — like having water to pull from in a drought. But the speech can offer context into finding solutions today.

There are cities in the West starting to find ways to be more efficient with their water by understanding their constraints. Las Vegas, for instance, banned any “nonfunctional” grass and mega-pools, and began investing in ways to recycle water, CNN reported last month. It’s an unlikely place for change but a hopeful example when it comes to harking Powell’s final water message, Smoak says.

Smaller solutions for Utah

In Utah’s case, he believes ideas like removing turf grass, amending water laws and finding ways to be efficient with the available water are among countless possibilities that can balance the state’s growth and address problems like the drying Great Salt Lake. These can help potentially avoid repeating the story of Owens Lake.

“Instead of looking to technology, we have to look at curbing appetites. We have to look at cultural change where we have to accept the limitations of where we live,” he adds. “Maybe we don’t have to look at them as limitations. Just accept where we live. And accept that Utah and the American West are different, and we can’t always engineer our way out of the problems we face and make more water.

“If we don’t actually think critically about (the problems), we’re not going to get anywhere. We’re just going to repeat the same stories.”

Previous reporting

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Utah Drought

an aerial photo shows the great salt lake, water level outlook is looking good for the lake...

Adam Small

The Great Salt Lake has a chance to be healthy again for the first time in over a decade

The water level in the Great Salt Lake is 1.5 feet from the tail-end of its healthy range of 4,196 to 4,200 feet.

5 hours ago

Sprinkler goes off, wondering when to turn on sprinklers?...

Adam Small

Don’t turn on the sprinklers just yet, expert says

Wondering when to turn on sprinklers now that we've been having warmer weather? Follow these guidelines to keep your lawn alive while still conserving water.

2 days ago

Warm weather will all for some of the Utah snowpack to begin melting off this weekend....

Adam Small

Utah temperatures warming up, strong snowpack set to start melting

Temperatures in Utah are going to get much warmer over the next few days, allowing for the snowpack we've accumulated to start melting off.

6 days ago

A screenshot from the Utah Division of Natural Resources website shows information about Panguitch ...

Kira Hoffelmeyer and Michael Camit

Panguitch Lake dam has a growing crack, residents on notice to evacuate

Some people in Garfield County are on standby to evacuate this morning because of growing concerns about a crack in the Panguitch Lake Dam.

8 days ago

runoff...

Curt Gresseth

Eubank gazes into snow globe to predict spring runoff in Utah

KSL Meteorologist Kevin Eubank talks about the abundant snowpack and what to expect from the spring runoff in Utah.

12 days ago

Patricia Council's North Las Vegas yard after her grass was replaced with artificial turf, on Frida...

Heather Peterson

Is there a war brewing over artificial grass in Salt Lake City?

Some people in Salt Lake City are being asked to pull out their artificial grass, and they are not happy about it.

13 days ago

Sponsored Articles

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.

...

Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

What role can history play in saving the Great Salt Lake, solving Utah’s water woes?