(Screenshot courtesy FOX 13)

 SALT LAKE CITY — As the Great Salt Lake moves closer to ecosystem collapse, the state of Utah is taking steps to try to quickly get more water into it, including paying farmers to stop growing certain high water using crops.

"The salinity has gotten so high on the lake that we are going to see ecosystem collapse," Joel Ferry, the executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources, said in an interview with FOX 13 News on Tuesday.

Ferry briefed members of the Utah State Legislature's Water Development Commission on the lake situation. He said the good news is levels have stabilized, but it is two feet below its old historic low. With the reduced levels, the salinity has reduced brine shrimp and flies, which impacts wildlife. An exposed lake bed also reduces snowpack in northern Utah and dust storms that blow into the Wasatch Front carry toxins in them.

Governor Spencer Cox has halted any new water diversions in the future into the Great Salt Lake (but his proclamation continues to allow existing water rights holders to continue to divert). The state is now exploring a number of measures to quickly get water into the lake, including paying farmers to fallow crops next year and send the water into the Great Salt Lake. Agriculture is the state's top water user. The Great Salt Lake has declined as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate.

"This one would be an immediate shock to the system, an immediate benefit to the system," said Ferry, who is also a farmer near Corinne.

"Wheat or corn or those annuals, some of it will be alfalfa. A farmer can say 'I’ll let my alfalfa go dormant,'" he said, adding: "This is going to be more of that base crop that is the largest consumer of water."

But the Utah Farm Bureau, a member group made up of farmers and ranchers across the state, wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea.

"I can’t even imagine just getting up and not planting a crop, especially for us," said Ron Gibson, a Weber County farmer and head of the Utah Farm Bureau. "We have to grow feed for our cows. If we take money to fallow that crop, what are we going to do?"

Gibson said farmers want to be part of the solution to help the Great Salt Lake, but he worried the idea would harm things down the food chain. The Utah Farm Bureau does support efforts to fund agriculture water optimization, which is using new technologies to allow farmers to grow crops with less water.

"It seems like agriculture takes a lot of those bullets and our problem is more and more everyday because agriculture is less," he said.

In addition to paying farmers to fallow, Utah's Department of Natural Resources said it was also planning to expand cloud-seeding this winter, seeking an expanded funding of up to a million dollars. But one of the cheapest and biggest things is already seeing success — conservation.

Utahns have stepped up and curbed their water use, Ferry said, and it is showing signs of working.

"Our reservoirs are more full today than they would be otherwise. We have more water in our reservoirs, more water in the Great Salt Lake than if we had just lived as if life was normal last year," he said. "So it does make a difference and it adds up."


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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