Great Salt Lake expected to rise more this spring; trust unveils 5-year plan to keep it going

Mar 15, 2024, 11:00 AM | Updated: 2:38 pm

great salt lake shoreline...

New rules are in place to protect Great Salt Lake. (Adam Small/KSL NewsRadio)

(Adam Small/KSL NewsRadio)

Editor’s note: 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 plight of the Great Salt Lake.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Great Salt Lake’s water levels, especially in the southern arm, are already as high as they reached during last year’s snowpack runoff before this year’s above-normal collection even melts.

But an organization tasked with helping get water to the lake has a new five-year plan to keep water flowing to it, regardless of the state’s snowpack. Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust officials unveiled their strategy this week, which looks at how it plans to acquire temporary or permanent water rights to send water to the lake.

The trust, led by the National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy, seeks to secure additional flows of about 100,000 acre-feet of water by 2028, as well as protect or restore at least 20,000 acres of additional wetlands and habitat surrounding the lake. The plan also outlines other goals, such as improvements to water distribution bottlenecks, and leveraging or matching 25% of state grant money.

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Marcelle Shoop, the trust’s executive director and saline lakes program director for Audubon Society, said the documents essentially outline the organization’s “work and aspirations” for the next few years.

“We are grateful for the ongoing efforts by so many leaders and community members taking action to preserve Great Salt Lake and its wetlands,” she said in a statement. “The trust aims to do its part to protect and enhance water flows for the lake and restore and protect wetlands to benefit the lake’s hydrology.”

The Utah Legislature selected the Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy to oversee the program in 2022 after creating it earlier that year with a $40 million appropriation. The organization announced in November 2023 that it would direct $8.5 million toward eight projects that seek to protect and enhance 13,000 acres of the lake’s wetlands.

It’s also secured some big-time water donations, such as over 20,000 acre-feet of water that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated last year. The five-year plan notes that both the water flow and habitat restoration goals outlined this week would “build on, and are inclusive of, the trust accomplishments to date.”

Officials add that reaching these goals will “take additional resources,” and various “conservation strategies” are expected to be used. These include assisting efforts to stabilize wetlands and the ongoing efforts to remove invasive species like phragmites from around the lake.

This, the plan notes, might be done through building on existing collaboration with various government agencies, including the Utah Department of Natural Resources; federal, state and private wetland managers; water conservation districts; private water suppliers; communities and tribes; agricultural producers and irrigation companies.

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“This plan represents not just a roadmap for the future, but a commitment to the scientific and community-based approaches that will guide our efforts in protecting the Great Salt Lake, including preserving its invaluable wetlands and habitats,” said Elizabeth Kitchens, The Nature Conservancy’s Utah state director.

The new plan comes as the Great Salt Lake’s southern arm is now up to 4,194.1 feet elevation, but its northern arm — divided by a berm — remains at 4,190.6 feet elevation. That puts the lake about 4-7½ feet below its minimum healthy level and 6-9½ feet below its average water level.

The lake is expected to rise even more when this winter’s snowpack melts, likely forcing more controlled releases within the Great Salt Lake basin. But it’ll likely begin to recede again when water diversions and evaporation return in the late spring and summer.

Meanwhile, the Utah Legislature approved some new Great Salt Lake laws and appropriations in this year’s legislative session. They include new incentives for water users to lease water and more lake infrastructure funding, including resources to track water that is donated or saved to be sure it ends up in the lake.

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Great Salt Lake expected to rise more this spring; trust unveils 5-year plan to keep it going