SALT LAKE CITY — A group of researchers and environmentalists are calling for an "emergency rescue" by policymakers to save the Great Salt Lake.

In a new report issued Thursday, 31 different conservationists and researchers from 11 academic institutions declared that Utahns are "underestimating the severity of consequences if the lake's decline isn't reversed." It warned that the Great Salt Lake could vanish within five years if no action is taken and called for emergency measures by the Utah State Legislature and Governor Spencer Cox.

Among the action items, a minimum of 2.5 million acre-feet of water going into the Great Salt Lake to reverse its collapse. That would require at least 30-50% reductions in water consumption in the Great Salt Lake watershed, from agriculture to residential.

But the report cautions that you cannot blame any single group (agriculture is a favorite target as it is the state's largest water user). Instead, the authors urge solidarity among all water users to save the Great Salt Lake. The lake has declined as a result of water diversion and a changing climate to its lowest levels in recorded history. A declining lake presents an existential threat to Utah. There's toxic dust storms, decreased snowpack, billions in economic losses and the loss of habitat for millions of migratory birds and other wildlife.

"It is really encouraging to see the level of community involvement and leadership around Great Salt Lake. State leaders, farmers, and so many others are working on exactly the kind of long-term solutions we need," said Dr. Ben Abbott, a professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University and one of the authors of the report. "However, the lake is really close to the edge, and the decisions we make in the coming few months will affect our community and ecosystems across the hemisphere. This winter’s above-average snowfall gives us a chance to give the lake a much- needed infusion of freshwater, but that’s only going to happen if we come together and put an emergency rescue into place. We need bold leadership and support from every water user and organization in the watershed."

The report said not to put too much into pipelines and cloud seeding, ideas floated by some in the legislature and state government because of costs and effectiveness. It cited a FOX 13 News report on the cost of building a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake where even Utah's Department of Natural Resources acknowledged conservation was cheaper.

"Conservation is the only way to provide adequate water in time to save Great Salt Lake," the report said, adding that it was the cheapest option for taxpayers.

Among other recommendations:

  • Increasing federal funds for the Great Salt Lake, including better measurement systems around its levels and climate.
  • Authorize emergency water releases from reservoirs going directly into the lake this year and in 2024.
  • Establish long-term target lake levels and short-term emergency plans.
  • Publicize "water heroes" who are actually saving water.
  • Paying agriculture producers to not grow crops (something FOX 13 News previously reported the Utah Department of Natural Resources is considering).
  • Expand water banking, allowing agriculture producers to send water downstream without a need to "use it or lose it."
  • Agriculture optimization, switching to new water-saving technologies.
  • Ensure that water saved by state and federal agricultural optimization programs is permanently designated for the lake.
  • Expand urban turf removal programs, including incentives for both residents and governments to meet conservation goals.
  • Implement tiered water pricing and removing the property tax that covers water use (a bill that was considered, but FOX 13 News reported in November would not advance in the upcoming legislative session).

"This lake is part of the fabric of Utahns, and its disappearance will impact our health and well-being. State officials and legislators should be working for the people they represent to prevent this ecosystem collapse and environmental catastrophe," Dr. Bonnie Baxter, the director of Westminster College's Great Salt Lake Institute, said in a statement.

There is increasing public pressure on lawmakers to do more to save the Great Salt Lake. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told FOX 13 News that he would be making it a top priority in the upcoming session. He has been praised by environmentalists for his efforts to help reverse the lake's declines. Some plan to hold him to his promises — the environmental group Save Our Great Salt Lake is planning a rally on Utah's Capitol Hill on Jan. 14 to call on the legislature to act and quickly.

"Action taken during this legislative session may well be decisive in determining the fate of Great Salt Lake. The science tells us the ecological collapse of the lake has begun. It is now up to policy makers to ensure the lake has enough water to turn this crisis around. The consequences if we don’t will be profound, starting with massive bird die-off and endangered species listings and ending with profound consequences for human health from air borne dust," said Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity.

On Wednesday, the Audubon Society told FOX 13 News that progress was being made in efforts to get water into the Great Salt Lake as the group negotiates with water rights holders to allow more releases into the lake.




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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