As Great Salt Lake experiences what is traditionally its lowest point of the year, things aren’t looking too bad.

“It's been a good October,” said Ben Stireman, a deputy director in the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “I hope that trend continues, and we do see the lake start to rise and do receive a good snowpack.”

At the U.S. Geological Survey measurement point in Saltair Boat Harbor, the current water levels sit at 4,192 feet above sea level and have hovered around that number for the last 30 days. While the lake isn’t expected to drop much more this year, the latest water levels aren’t far from 2022’s recorded low of 4,188 feet.

Utah’s record-setting snowpack this past winter did Great Salt Lake a favor. It gave the lake a water level boost, but not enough to remove it from the danger zone. More water is needed to lift it into the safety zone of around 4,200 feet. In that target range, its complex ecosystems could survive, as would its $1.9 billion in yearly economic gains for the state.

If Utah does have another fruitful winter, Stireman said more of the snow runoff will make it to the lake. Last year, “there was a lot of making up to do” because reservoirs were empty and the soil was dry, so less trickled down. Since the reservoirs are in a better place and the soil isn’t parched this time around, snowmelt is more likely to head straight to Great Salt Lake.

But there is only a very small chance Utah will experience another unparalleled snow year. In fact, it’s up in the air how this winter will play out. There is an equal chance of below and above-average precipitation. Zach Frankel, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Utah Rivers Council, said the state “can’t rely on Mother Nature” to solve Utah’s looming water problems.

In recent years, the Legislature and municipal governments have enacted policies that advocate for water conservation and methods to shepherd more water to Great Salt Lake. To Stireman, “it’ll take a little bit of time” before those recently passed policies are “put onto the ground.” But to Frankel, that pace is too slow.

“Utah is decades behind other states in both conserving water and in protecting our aquatic ecosystems,” he said. “Utah simply is not acting fast enough to do what is necessary to save Great Salt Lake.”

As a way to further sound the already-ringing alarm, the council released “The 4,200 Project Guidebook,” which outlines 12 policy proposals to put water back into Great Salt Lake. They range from the state level down to individual action. State leaders already haven’t had much of an appetite for some of the guidebook’s proposals, like establishing a water level goal.

During the 2023 legislative session, Democratic State Sen. Nate Blouin tried to pass a non-binding resolution to set a Great Salt Lake water level goal of 4,198 feet. It failed with Gov. Spencer Cox calling it a “dumb” proposal at his February monthly news conference with reporters. That same month, the university-backed Great Salt Lake Strike Team advocated that the state accept a target water level range between 1,498 to 4,205 feet.

Sen. Blouin did not respond to KUER’s request for comment on if he plans to run the non-binding resolution again.

One of the big policy changes Frankel would like to see is the assurance that water donated by water rights holders will actually make its way to the lake and not be diverted to other water users in the process.

Utah doesn’t currently have the infrastructure to ensure that, but Republican State Rep. Casey Snider is working on getting the necessary money needed to make those upgrades.

"If I'm a farmer in Box Elder County and I have committed through lease to forfeit my fourth crop in exchange for monetary compensation, I need to know — and the person who has paid that money needs to be absolutely sure — that water is going to the Great Salt Lake and not to the next diversion," he told Fox13. "We don’t have that certainty now in our water delivery systems."

Stireman, with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, is also aware of what he called “the information gaps” in the ability to track water flows.

“The goal would be that we would have more measuring devices so we can tell when we're moving water around in the system that we can ensure that it actually is reaching the lake and it's not depleted or diverted,” he said. “So there's a lot of talk about how we improve our measuring and understanding of how water moves.”

As for the other policy proposals, Frankel is going to need some bipartisan backing in the Legislature. This past session, two of the policies they helped draft were sponsored by Democrats. Both failed to make it out of committee. He said Utah Rivers Council has “several sponsors” for a handful of the measures outlined in the report, although he declined to provide further details on specific policies or sponsors.

“One of the issues being discussed right now in the state House is a [potential] Republican [sponsor]. But other than that, it's all I can say is right now until we finalize negotiations,” Frankel said.

KUER Political Reporter

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