The receding waterline along the eastern shore of the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake leaves the earthen sculpture of the Spiral Jetty high and dry, Aug. 3, 2022. (David Childs. KUER)

Utah’s Great Salt Lake is at a record low and has already begun its ecological collapse. But it’s not the only salty lake in despair.

On the final day of November, the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Act of 2021 passed the Senate with flying colors. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore, sponsored the bill and Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney is the co-sponsor, along with four other senators in Nevada, California and Oregon.

The bill sets aside $5 million over the next five years for the U.S. Geological Survey to study how saline lakes function across the Great Basin.

A similar bill co-sponsored by Utah Republican Rep. Blake Moore related to saline lakes passed the House in July. It was later amended and placed in the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act. One of the only differences is that it prioritized a list of 18 saline lakes throughout the Great Basin. Great Salt Lake and Oregon’s Lake Albert topped the list.

Moore is now sponsoring an identical House bill to Romney’s. It’s up in the air it will make it to a floor vote before the end of the year and the expiration of the 117th Congress. Moore told KUER there is a “high probability.”

“I've got commitments from our Democrat partners on this bill that we should see floor time before the end of this cycle,” he said. “We’re confident it’ll pass.”

The last day the House is scheduled to be in session before a new Congress convenes is Dec. 15, but the House can call itself back into session at any time.

For Moore, the drying of the Great Salt Lake “is catastrophic with respect to the amount of economic damage that it would create.” He added the bill will provide the research needed to understand what is happening, especially when it comes to hydrology.

While environmental advocates are celebrating the bill, they acknowledge it should have happened sooner.

“This should have been done 20 years ago,” said Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “And I hope it doesn’t become too little too late.”

Roerink thinks the research conducted by USGS about water quality and quantity will be beneficial to Utah specifically. The bill requires the department to compile all data, literature and scientific analysis of needs about water use, demand, quality and quantity and make recommendations to address those concerns.

That research, Roerink said, will highlight what needs to happen with the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers that flow into Great Salt Lake.

“We need to know what a safe yield is for water use,” Roerink said. “What can humans use upstream? But what does the lake need downstream in a variety of different conditions?”

Legislation like this is something that Marcelle Shoop, the saline lakes program director for the Audubon Society, said the agency has been working on for years.

She said data related to groundwater specifically isn’t very strong and is nearly non-existent for some saline lakes. There’s also little information about what would happen if the irreplaceable habitat of various ecosystems were to die.

“Some of these lake systems really don't have much data or there's not a great understanding about how the watershed functions, how surface and groundwater flows function,” she said. “So improving that at a local level at some of the lakes initially could be very helpful.”

The goal, Shoop and Roerink said, is for various stakeholders, like local governments, tribal entities, water managers and nonprofits, to work together and take advantage of the USGS recommendations. It would then be up to local governments to turn the recommendations into a reality.

But both are worried that the money allocated by Congress wouldn’t be enough.

“The bill only authorizes $5 million a year for five years,” Shoop said. “That's not a lot of money for the kind of work that probably needs to be done locally at each and every one of these sites.”

Rep. Moore applauded Utah’s focus on Great Salt Lake, pointing to unprecedented money the lake has received from the Utah Legislature in recent years. But as of right now, he’s “confident that we don't need to provide a bunch of federal dollars to this.”

“What we need to do is conduct this study that's going to have all of the stakeholders involved so we can sort of identify what the best practices are in the states.”

KUER Political Reporter

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