SALT LAKE CITY — A highly-anticipated report recommending ways to save the Great Salt Lake has been delivered to Utah's governor and legislative leaders.

The report itself will not be made public until next month, but Great Salt Lake Commissioner Dr. Brian Steed spoke about some of his recommendations in an interview with FOX 13 News on Monday.

"Unfortunately, the conditions that drove the lake, the last year's conditions, really haven’t changed much," he said. "So we would anticipate getting down to those levels again unless we do something different."

The Great Salt Lake hit its lowest level in recorded history last year as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate. It presents an ecological and economic threat to the state with toxic dust storms (arsenic and other harmful chemicals are naturally occurring in the exposed lake bed), reduced snowpack, as well as harms to public health and wildlife.

The Great Salt Lake's dramatic decline set off alarm bells on Utah's Capitol Hill and led to a series of legislation and over $1 billion in spending for water conservation measures. It also led to the governor and legislative leaders appointing Steed (who heads Utah State University's Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air) as the point person to oversee efforts to save the lake.

Steed told FOX 13 News his report has some recommendations for the short term, a "medium term" over the next five years, and then a longer term looking out decades.

"We have to make sure that we're closing the loop, when we do conservation programs, for instance, that when we actually save water? That we’re making sure that saved water gets where it needs to be," he said. "We’re looking at additional incentives to make sure that the farmers and ranchers, when they do save water through ag optimization, we’re able to put those to benefit the lake. Same kind of transaction when it comes to municipal and industrial use."

That was something the Great Salt Lake Collaborative (of which FOX 13 News is a member) also identified in recent reporting on the state's agriculture optimization program. The state has handed out millions in grants to help agriculture producers switch to newer technologies that grow crops with less water, but they cannot say for certain that saved water is making it to the Great Salt Lake.

Beyond that, Steed also recommended the state look at a healthy lake level range from 4,198 feet to 4,205 feet. On Monday, the U.S. Geological Survey measured the Great Salt Lake level at the marina at 4,192.3 feet.

"We're a long ways away from that right now so getting water to the lake is going to be really important," he said.

Steed said his report also recommended stronger monitoring of biological conditions on the Great Salt Lake as well as salinity, to alert them to problems.

"We have done a pretty good job in monitoring brine shrimp, because we have a whole industry attached to that," he said. "We really have to start focusing on the other food stuffs, right? The brine flies, as well as the bird species that rely on those to make sure that the integrity of the ecological system as well as we're making sure we don't tip and cause long-term harm."

Steed said he also recommends more focus on water use in growth and in agriculture, including more long-term incentives for people to use less water.

"One way would be through ordinances so when we're growing, we're growing in a smart way and we're not using all that water outdoors, because we've planned for better growth. Secondly, we have to make sure we're using water effectively through agriculture practices," he said.

Steed supported the concept of "split season" leasing, which pays farmers for some of their water for the benefit of the lake. The idea is expected to emerge in the upcoming session of the Utah State Legislature alongside legislation to ensure conserved water makes it downstream and isn't diverted again and again.

Utah's political leaders said they were excited to dive into the report.

"I'm anxious to read it," Governor Spencer Cox told FOX 13 News. "I'm looking forward to it and looking forward to making it public."

House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who sponsored the bill to create the Great Salt Lake Commissioner position, said some of the recommendations were concepts already supported by his fellow lawmakers.

"I haven’t seen all the recommendations yet, but we have an open mind. We are working on several things in conjunction with the commissioner," he told FOX 13 News. "We know those are going to be talked about. We hope the legislature adopts them. We think they will. We’re super supportive of them."

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

Related Articles