As Great Salt Lake nears key level, Utah finds inspiration elsewhere to help lake’s recovery

Apr 30, 2024, 4:21 PM | Updated: 4:25 pm

FILE: Hay bales used for dust mitigation in a Salton Sea Management Program project are pictured on...

FILE: Hay bales used for dust mitigation in a Salton Sea Management Program project are pictured on approximately 68 acres near Bombay Beach, Calif., on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. Some corresponding seeding to establish vegetation was attempted during last year’s rains, but further planting is on hold until a water source is confirmed. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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 southern arm reached 4,195 feet elevation at times over the stormy weekend as it nears reaching that figure daily for the first time in five years.

While that’s a key water level in the ongoing efforts to preserve the lake after it reached an all-time low in 2022, the state agency tasked with overseeing the lake’s future recently took a field trip to other parts of the Southwest as it soaks up ideas that could help improve future water inflows.

The Great Salt Lake’s southern arm entered this week at 4,194.9 feet elevation, 0.1 inches off the “intermediate target” outlined in the Great Salt Lake Strategic Plan that the Office of the Great Salt Lake Commissioner unveiled in January. U.S. Geological Survey data indicates that it could reach a daily level of 4,195 feet elevation as early as this week as it receives water from snowpack runoff and controlled releases from upstream dams.

The Utah office estimates that the southern arm may peak around 4,195.5 feet to 4,196 feet by the end of the snowpack runoff. It last reached 4,196 feet in 2017.

However, the lake’s arm is expected to end up about 2 to 2½ feet below its minimum healthy levels before it recedes in the summer and early fall months — and it’s up to ongoing strong winters to keep getting water to the Great Salt Lake unless Utah can reduce its water consumption.

That’s why members of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Office of the Great Salt Lake and other water agencies took a field trip earlier this month to tour how other Southwest communities handle water in dry climates as they search for solutions to improve the lake’s water levels.

“We don’t have a monopoly on all good ideas,” said Brian Steed, Utah’s Great Salt Lake commissioner, in an interview on Friday. “We want to know what other people have done and how well that’s worked out.”

What Utah learned from the trip

The agencies toured farms near Yuma, Arizona, and California’s Salton Sea as a part of the trip.

Agriculture is a big industry in Yuma, generating $4 billion annually, according to the city. It’s also important beyond Arizona, producing about 90% of all lettuce found in North American grocery stores during the wintertime. It’s also a big-time producer of other greens and vegetables.

But growing all of that produce also requires a lot of water. Agricultural uses account for more than three-fourths of all the water consumed in Arizona, the Arizona Republic reported last year. It and other Lower Colorado River Basin states have also dealt with water cutbacks and threats of a declining water supply, as Lake Powell and Lake Mead have dropped in capacity over the past two decades amid drought and overconsumption.

This is why many farmers have turned to modern irrigation technology in recent years. The Yuma Irrigation District reports that sprinklers are now used on over 7,000 acres of produce, while other tactics are used to increase capacity and conserve water at the same time.


The University of Arizona also began administering a state irrigation water efficiency program that helps farmers pay for these types of projects in 2022. The university reported in October that farmers were already able to reduce their consumption by 36,000 acre-feet of water annually through improvements to 18,000 acres of agricultural land in the first year. The state’s goal is to cut agriculture water consumption by at least 20%.

In a video about the program, Ethan Orr, associate director for agriculture, natural resources, and economic development for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, said Arizona now uses less water than it did in 1962 despite its crop production nearly doubling in value and its population tripling over the past six decades.

Steed walked away from the tour feeling positive about the potential Utah’s agricultural optimization program has and the role it could play in helping the Great Salt Lake.

“In trying to do water savings without killing agriculture, drip irrigation offers a lot of promise,” he said. “Figuring out how to do that well is something that will be a challenge for the state, but also a great opportunity.”

The Utah group then traveled to the Salton Sea, a terminal saline lake in Southern California similar to the Great Salt Lake, as a solemn reminder of what could happen if the Great Salt Lake dried up. Communities around the lake are dealing with all sorts of problems with dust coming off its dried lakebed.

Dust lingers after OHVs drove by in West Shores, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Dust lingers after OHVs drove by in West Shores, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

In fact, the federal government announced in 2022 that it would direct $250 million toward efforts to mitigate the dust and improve habitat for endangered species by the lake — all issues that could plague Utah in the future.

However, Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Joel Ferry said last week he left that tour feeling there is a “stark” contrast between the lakes’ situations. There’s still time to address the Great Salt Lake, which isn’t exactly how he felt while observing the Salton Sea.

“The main difference that stood out to me is the fact that the Salton Sea and the efforts there are really just a ‘manage the crisis’ kind of a situation; whereas, with the Great Salt Lake, we’re actually recovering and we’ve put in place policies to where we’ve dedicated water to the lake,” he said. “I think ours is a message more of hope.”

Putting lessons to use

The information gathered from the field trip is being used as the commissioner’s office figures out how to implement its new strategic plan. While this year’s bump is a monumental step toward the lake’s recovery, Steed points out that the Great Salt Lake’s full recovery isn’t expected “in a year or two,” barring an unexpected but welcomed string of strong snowpack seasons like the past two years.

The Great Salt Lake Strike Team, which he is a part of, is currently looking at this year’s data to estimate how much additional water the lake needs annually; however, Steed estimates it’ll likely be at least 400,000 acre-feet of water every year to make up for all the losses in recent decades. He adds that he would like to view other areas of the West to see what is and isn’t working as the region deals with water shortages.

While the first trip mostly centered around agricultural water, Great Salt Lake deputy commissioner Tim Davis said the agency has also spoken with various municipalities and water districts over ways to cut back water consumption within the lake’s basin since the strategic plan was released. The Utah Division of Water Rights is also working on a “gaps analysis” to better track water that is intended to make it to the lake.

“We have been pretty active in trying to explore the different alternatives we have out there,” he said. “It’s going to take everyone working together to conserve water dedicated to the lake and make sure it gets there.”

We want to hear from you.

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

Utah Drought

Parts of Utah have been given a heat advisory on Sunday. A view of the state Capitol and the Salt L...

Kennedy Camarena

Parts of Utah under excessive heat warning

Utah has been given two different kinds of heat advisories for parts of the state by the National Weather Service on Sunday.

1 day ago

The KSL Greenhouse show talked about plants that grow well in Utah's heat this weakened....

Taun Beddes, KSL Greenhouse show

KSL Greenhouse: Plants that bloom in Utah’s heat

Most people shop for their Utah garden flowers in the spring, which might not bloom well in summer. So, what flowers bloom in the summer?

2 days ago

The Glen Canyon Dam holds back the waters of Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, on July 18, 2022....

Adam Small

Lake Powell missing 40,000 acre feet of water after accidental release, officials say

Lake Powell is the nation's second-largest reservoir, and it's currently missing up to 40,000-acre feet of water due to a water release.

11 days ago

Parts of Utah have been given a heat advisory on Sunday. A view of the state Capitol and the Salt L...

Andrew Gordon

High temps bring warnings and ozone problems to Utah

Utah's high temperatures have brought on the hottest day of the year so far in the state, along with warnings and ozone issues.

11 days ago

water reuse...

Michael Camit

Washington County is one step closer to a major water reuse project

A water reuse project in Washington County is a step closer to reality. The 20-year project will get some funding from federal grants.

17 days ago

Deer Creek Reservoir is pictured at Deer Creek State Park in Wallsburg on May 10. Utah's reservoir ...

Carter Williams, KSL.com

Utah’s reservoirs at highest levels in 13 years as last of snowpack melts

Utah's reservoir system has officially reached its highest point in 13 years as the state reaches the tail end of its spring snowmelt season.

17 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Underwater shot of the fisherman holding the fish...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Your Bear Lake fishing guide

Bear Lake offers year-round fishing opportunities. By preparing ahead of time, you might go home with a big catch!

A group of people cut a purple ribbon...


Comcast announces major fiber network expansion in Utah

Comcast's commitment to delivering extensive coverage signifies a monumental leap toward a digitally empowered future for Utahns.

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

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.

As Great Salt Lake nears key level, Utah finds inspiration elsewhere to help lake’s recovery