1. On a scale of 1 to 10, with the many city priorities you will face as mayor, where do you rank the Great Salt Lake and why?

Six (with ten being the highest). The Great Salt Lake sits just after homelessness, affordable housing, and air quality. Which is not to say the lake isn’t important, but rather, as mayor, it’s my responsibility to weigh priorities on a scale of importance and ability-to-impact. Saving the Great Salt Lake is an existential environmental issue for Salt Lake City — no doubt about it — but the scope of the challenge involves so much beyond the city’s control that even with the landmark steps the city has taken the last two years, it being my top priority could not move the needle any further.

2. What’s your plan for assisting in saving the Great Salt Lake—what actions will you take to ensure more water makes it to the lake in the future?

Salt Lake City is focused on three impactful tools: conservation, contribution, and communication.

Conservation: How we grow matters, and helping our residents and other cities see the benefits of water-conscious policies will continue to be part of my approach. Earlier this year, I ordered a top-to-bottom review of water usage in every city-owned facility and park to identify new opportunities to conserve water. The results will inform significant city policy in my second term, though preliminary results are already helping us prioritize high-impact projects, like insulating our fleet vehicle wash station to save millions of gallons annually. 

Contribution: Salt Lake City is formalizing its annual contribution of 13 billion gallons of treated reclaimed water to ensure it goes to the Great Salt Lake in perpetuity. I’m also really excited about the Great Salt Lake Shoreline Heritage Preserve. The city has partnered to apply for a $10 million grant to help acquire and permanently conserve shoreline property, and I hope this is just the beginning. 

Communication: I will continue to take every opportunity to talk about the health of the lake and how protecting this fragile ecosystem is the key to maintaining our health, economy, and quality of life.

3. What actions have you taken in the past to help protect the lake?

I warned in my 2023 State of the City address that “history will judge us for the choices we make and don’t make right now.”

I led an aggressive voluntary conservation effort that helped reduce water consumption in the Salt Lake City water district by 15 percent in 2022, preventing 2.9 billion gallons of water from being diverted from the lake. And on my order, Salt Lake City government has had even stricter water-conservation standards than it has imposed on the general public.

To further incentivize water conservation, I recommended the city implement a temporary drought surcharge on the city’s biggest water consumers. This surcharge impacts the biggest residential consumers — typically caused by excessive watering of lawns.

My administration even developed a unique strain of grass seed specifically engineered to be drought-resistant in Salt Lake City’s climate and soil conditions.

And, I instructed our Public Utilities department to file the water-right documentation that would make permanent the 13 billion gallons of water that annually make their way to the lake from our water reclamation facility. This is an important, forward looking step as some explore re-use of treated water, which would be terrible for the lake.

4. How do you view the inland port projects and the impact it may have on the lake?

How the state’s inland port develops is critical to the lake’s health and ecosystem. While Salt Lake City does not ultimately control how the state’s inland port will develop, I am firmly committed to doing anything we can and staying at the table to push the port as far as we can to reduce harm. I fought to regain the city’s tax increment and enter an interlocal agreement with the Port in order to direct city funds to projects that will mitigate impacts on the environment and on neighboring communities. 

My team has been working with a group of community members and activists this year to shape the studies that the port committed to do in the interlocal agreement, and I am optimistic that a thorough baseline analysis and comprehensive scenario-based planning carried out over the next year will result in the city’s ability to very effectively advocate for the kind of development that is most beneficial to the community while being least harmful to the lake. 

5. What do you want residents under your watch to do to help save the lake?

Being smarter and more judicious in our water use is, day-in-day-out, the best thing residents can do to help save the Great Salt Lake. This means looking at your landscaping, not over-watering, fixing faulty plumbing, considering water-wise appliances and fixtures in your house. And our residents must be a vocal part of our constant advocacy to our elected leaders in the state legislature and Congress. 

Our city accounts for a fraction of water that can make its way to the lake, and we need statewide solutions to avoid its demise. One wet winter is not enough to undo years of extreme drought and I worry that some people may be under the mistaken impression that we don’t have to move as urgently or aggressively now. We can’t relax even a little.

6. What should the state and federal government do to help save the lake?

I’m really grateful for the recent leadership of our state leaders on this issue, especially Governor Cox and Speaker Brad Wilson. But I hope the state and federal government are willing to look at what cities like Salt Lake City have done to conserve and contribute water to the lake. Think of the difference it could make if they also embarked on top-down audits of their water usage and pledged to prioritize conservation measures, especially around landscaping. Think about what we could do if we really prioritize finding and funding new ways for farmers to grow crops that results in less water to be diverted for agriculture. The technology exists and is improving all the time, and I know that ingenious Utahns can find a path that preserves our agricultural economy and way of life and keeps water in the lake. 

7. Because treated wastewater is an important source of water to Great Salt Lake, in some cases, water recycling and water conservation methods that are effective elsewhere can actually decrease the flow of water to the lake. What initiatives do you envision for encouraging sustainable water use while also protecting the supply of water to Great Salt Lake?

This gets at the heart of a catch-22 that we must continue to solve-for in Salt Lake City and as a state. We can and should always do more to conserve water because even though wastewater goes back to the lake, that is not a one-to-one equation. Water is lost throughout that process and the majority of water-savings potential in cities can be found in outdoor water use. Sustainable water use needs to go beyond replacing our shower heads and repairing our sprinkler systems; we need to continue to help large water users – industry, agriculture, extraction – employ more sustainable practices so that they, too, can divert more water to the lake. We also need more cities to reduce the total allowance for non-functional turf in landscaping and use their land-use authorities for long-term conservation.

8. How would the depletion of the Great Salt Lake affect the future of your city?

There wouldn’t be a Salt Lake City without the Great Salt Lake. Losing the lake would have an enormous impact on our livable environment, public health, population stability, economy, tourism and more. Our people would suffer not only the physical impacts of the toxicity rendered on our air quality, but they would undoubtedly struggle with mental health impacts — from losing trust in our leaders who let this happen, to fearing for the wellbeing of their loved ones, to the stress of having to decide that they can no longer stay and thrive in this place they love. 

9. What does sustainable development mean to you, and what do you see as your role in ensuring that future development is sustainable?

Sustainable development means that we use every land use practice, planning tool, and incentive to require new development to employ the best available technology to conserve water. During my administration, the city’s Redevelopment Agency passed a sustainability policy that any recipient of RDA funds is now required to meet. We passed an ordinance limiting the allowed water usage in the Northwest Quadrant (inland port). And we’re revising our landscaping ordinance to be more water-wise. As the city continues to grow, sustainable water policies are both possible and critical. Over the last 23 years, our population has grown 15 percent, but our overall water use has decreased 31 percent. Individual water use has decreased by 40 percent over that time. Those numbers are a continual source of proof that we can keep making progress sustainably if we work creatively and together.

10. What is your personal relationship/history to the Great Salt Lake?

I love the Great Salt Lake. I am awestruck by the millions of migrating birds and the history of this lake being a relic of an ancient, inland sea and an important location to so many indigenous peoples. The lake is both fragile and powerful, beautiful and austere. I’ve visited the Shoreline Preserve with Ella Sorensen in different seasons over several years, watching the impacts of less and less water on the gnats and flies, birds, and brine. I visit Antelope Island with my family, feeling the spherical exoskeletons like sand between our toes at the lake’s edge. The uniqueness of the lake landscape and ecosystem is a complement to our capital city and our people, seeking balance, stability, and a place to thrive. 

Salt Lake City Mayoral Candidate

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