(Screenshot Courtesy of FOX-13)

SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox issued an executive order on Friday raising the Great Salt Lake causeway berm to keep snowpack in the south arm of the lake, propping it up.

"The Great Salt Lake is crucial to our environment, ecology and economy, and we must do everything we can to protect it," Gov. Cox said in a statement. "We’ve been blessed with significant snowpack so far this winter, and this executive order will allow the state to move quickly to increase the lake level in the south arm by capturing spring runoff. We don’t want to miss this opportunity to safeguard the lake."

The order raises the berm five feet over its previous level. It's designed to increase the water depth of the south arm — the area closest to cities across northern Utah — and decrease the salinity.

"That's where we see a lot of the dust occurring that's impacting our cities," Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry told FOX 13 News.

The move is trying to keep some ecological balance. Last year, the Great Salt Lake hit its lowest level in recorded history. It's a result of water diversion, Utah's mega-drought and a changing climate. Scientists say the lake is starting to hit ecological collapse. The exposed lake bed generates dust storms with toxins in them, reduces the amount of snowpack in the mountains and can cause significant impacts to wildlife and public health, as well as billions in lost economic activity centered around the lake.

The good news is this winter has pumped more snow into the mountains and helped the lake start to grow, though we are 8-feet below what is considered a minimum level. Ferry said that since November, the Great Salt Lake has grown by a foot and salinity has decreased by 1%.

"This is a further step to help boost those efforts and get us through those tough times right now," he said of the governor's order.

Moving forward, Ferry said, they would explore work on the berm to be able to have more control over the salinity and water levels of the north and south arms of the lake (which are separated by the causeway).

"Today’s executive order is a stop-gap measure to deal with low water flows. It should not be the new long-term way we manage the Great Salt Lake," said Zachary Frankel, the director of the environmental group Utah Rivers Council. "We still have no plan as a state to raise the water levels of the Great Salt Lake back up, which is what we need."

On Utah's Capitol Hill, political leaders were supportive of the governor's order. Lawmakers are running dozens of bills on water conservation and helping the Great Salt Lake. Some of those bills are starting to move through the legislative session. Environmentalists have been critical of bills that have so far not passed.

On Friday, lawmakers wore blue in the House and Senate as a symbolic commitment to water legislation. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who has personally pushed for efforts to help the lake said his colleagues were working on it.

"It still is one of the — if not the biggest issue we have up here — in terms of the future of the state’s needs and challenges we have," he said. "So people are super committed to it."




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.

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