ENVIRONMENT

Water leaders propose new ground rules for Great Salt Lake lithium extractors

Oct 19, 2023, 2:00 PM

Water levels are pictured in the Great Salt Lake -- SALT LAKE CITY--- The Utah Division of Forestry...

FILE: Water levels are pictured in the Great Salt Lake on Thursday, July 20, 2023. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

(Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY— The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is laying out what ground rules they want companies to follow if they’re extracting lithium from the Great Salt Lake.

DFFSL Deputy Director Ben Stireman told KSL NewsRadio they prepared the rules under a new law requiring them to do so during the 2023 Legislative Session.

Lithium is becoming more of a hot commodity with the advancement in technology. Its most common use is for electric vehicles and smartphone batteries.

The resource isn’t common in the U.S.

The Great Salt Lake has had lithium for quite some time but hasn’t really garnered attention until a few years ago, according to Stireman.

Mineral companies have operated on the lake for decades, harvesting things like sodium chloride, which is divided into salt and chlorine, as well as magnesium. Some major existing companies on the lake include U.S. Magnesium, Compass Minerals and Morton Salt.

How do the proposed rules work?

Very simply, if these rules are approved, companies have two options.

1: Evaporate only less or the average amount of water they use over a 10-year period, even if it’s less water than they’re allotted in the water rights contracts. If they go over, they have to replenish all the water evaporated over that average amount.

Or 2: Use new technology that takes water in one pipe, extracts the lithium, and then shoots the water back out of the other pipe. This method preserves every drop of water they used from the Great Salt Lake and is becoming more popular among companies looking to join in the lithium hunt.

Stireman also told KSL NewsRadio if companies choose option number two, they will qualify for a reduction in their royalty payment to the state.

What happens next?

The rules still have to go through public comment and a public meeting before advancing to the final approval process, which, Stireman said could take a few months, if there are no hiccups in the process.

Regardless of which option companies choose, Stireman said the health of the lake comes first.

“If we can produce lithium while we’re keeping the lake safe, then by all means we should do that,” Stireman said. “We really want to see the economy benefit from this, but it really just can’t be at the expense of the lake.”

The Great Salt Lake is recovering after hitting its lowest level in recorded history in late 2022. It rose 5 and a half feet after a historic snowpack and spring runoff, but as of mid-September, it had dropped 1.8 feet.

Based on those numbers, the lake still needs to rise more than 6 feet to reach what scientists consider healthy levels.

Lawmakers and water managers have been racing to save the lake since its first historic decline in 2021.

Before the record winter breathed new life into the lake’s ecosystem, scientists predicted the lake would completely dry up in five years. They gave that timeline an additional two years after that abundance of snow fell.

The lake’s decline has exposed much of its lakebed, which contains toxic materials like arsenic, which could have a major impact on people’s health along the Wasatch Front.

A missing lake would also deplete Utah’s annual snowpack, the ski industry and the surrounding ecosystem.

It would have devastating consequences for the people and the economy of Utah.

State lawmakers are drafting more legislation aimed at saving the lake for the 2024 General Session.

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Water leaders propose new ground rules for Great Salt Lake lithium extractors