The shore of the Great Salt Lake on Stansbury Island on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Trent Nelson, The Salt Lake Tribune)

OGDEN, Utah — As the Great Salt Lake continues to decline rapidly, state officials warned that Utahns will have to significantly increase water conservation.

"We simply need to use less water, but we know that's complicated," said Candice Hasenyager, the director of Utah's Division of Water Resources, adding: "There will be some painful steps that we need to take."

The warning came during House Speaker Brad Wilson's annual Great Salt Lake summit on Thursday.

"That’s the way this is going to happen. It’s going to be everyone doing their part and collectively, we’ll be able to address the lake," he said.

The Speaker brought together environmentalists, lawmakers, academics and state officials to discuss the lake's decline and solutions to save it. The Great Salt Lake is now at its lowest point in its recorded history, having dropped this month to 4,188.9 feet. The impact of its decline includes reduced snowpack, toxic dust storms, harm to wildlife and human health and $1.3 billion in lost economic activity.

"We are already seeing ecosystem collapse happening at Great Salt Lake," Katie Newburn, the education and outreach director for the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake, told FOX 13 News in an interview at the summit.

On Thursday, officials with the University of Utah and Utah State University jointly presented some dire projections for the future of the lake. Brian Steed, the director of USU's Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water and Air, warned that the lake will continue to decline without intervention.

"We can still say with absolute certainty that human consumptive use has an impact on lake levels," he told the crowd.

Dr. William Anderegg, a climate scientist at the University of Utah, said there are long-term trends of lake declined linked to human water use. Temperatures have been rising and precipitation trends have been variable. Stream flows into the Great Salt Lake have declined over time. But the projections with climate changes are that any increases in precipitation would be more offset by increases in temperatures and evaporation.

"Less water available for people and the lake in coming decades," he told the crowd.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said she was alarmed.

"Climate change is evident, growth is a real thing, we have unpredictability with future rain and other precipitation, so yeah we need to change things," she told FOX 13 News.

As the lake has faced increasing salinity as a result of its decline, that poses problems for the ecosystem. In an emergency effort, Speaker Wilson announced he had negotiated an agreement to have local water districts send 30,000 acre-feet more water into the Great Salt Lake to help stabilize it.

"I would say this is just a start," the Speaker said of the deal. "And I think they would agree this is a start. But this is something they could commit to on short notice to help deal with an acute issue and we'll build on it respectively."

The solution to the lake's problems is to get more water into it. The summit also explored some potential solutions ranging from increased "cloud seeding" to a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean. But overwhelmingly, conservation was viewed as the primary method to help the lake.

"Conservation has to be our first choice. Across the board. Period," Joel Ferry, a former state lawmaker and currently the executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources, told FOX 13 News. "Not only our first choice, it’s our most cost-effective choice. So before we get to spending tens of billions of dollars building pipes somewhere, let’s do conservation. Let’s do 100% conservation."

Conservation efforts are starting to roll out in Utah, with secondary water metering on lawns to agriculture optimization (using new technologies to help crops grow with less water). But Ferry said more will need to be done.

Some members of the Utah State Legislature were already planning additional conservation bills. Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, said he was drafting a bill to get rid of "non-functional turf" and increase incentives for homeowners to ditch lawns.

"We've got to do water wise landscaping. We're not going to have non-functional turf like meridians in highways and stuff," he said. "We can still have trees and shrubs and some turf, homeowners can have some turf, but we need to limit it in construction."

Speaker Wilson announced a new initiative to get people to conserve. "Utah Water Ways" would be a public-private partnership to educate people on the importance of water conservation and how to use less. The initiative would be similar to the successful Utah Clean Air (UCAIR) partnership and would eventually replace the state's "Slow the Flow" campaign.

"We are putting all this effort and investment into conservation. Utah residents should expect that that effort results in more water that they save flowing into the Great Salt Lake," the Speaker said.

Newburn said the urgency is here, but she was optimistic after attending the summit.

"It’s never been more urgent to deliver water to this lake to slow the rising salinity and preserve this ecosystem," she said. "And if we can do that, we’re going to preserve the other beneficial uses the lake offers us as well."


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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