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A University of Utah expert on watersheds is proposing that the Great Salt Lake should be subject to a special regional commission.

Bob Adler, an associate professor in environmental law, worries about the ability of the lake and its surrounding marshes to thrive as one of the richest ecosystems in the West. Specifically, he is concerned about the expansion of cities toward the lake."The biggest impact for the future is human population growth," he said. "People ignore that everything they are doing around the lake and in its entire watershed will affect the health of the ecosystem."

His suggestion: set up "something like a Great Salt Lake Watershed Commission." The group would be patterned after organizations like the three-state Chesapeake Bay Commission, which is working to restore the bay, at one time among the world's most productive estuaries.

The lake has been subject to various governmental groups, such as the Great Salt Lake Technical Team, which was set up under the state government's auspices.

Stan Elmer, a retired Bountiful man who formerly headed the technical team when he was the state's sovereign lands coordinator, said the team was mostly concerned with impacts on state-owned land at the lake. Adler's proposal would involve "a lot bigger picture" than the tech team's objectives, said Elmer.

So what's the Great Salt Lake ecosystem good for, anyway?

From a commercial standpoint, brine shrimp from the lake are used as food for tropical fish and in fish farms. Adler called this a major industry, with $50 million to $75 million worth of the tiny shrimp harvested every year, in gross sales.

The lake's value goes far beyond commerce, however.

Birds are among the most important elements in the lake's ecosystem, with more than 250 species using the lake, 117 of them for nesting. Adler cited these facts:

- The lake is the largest breeding ground for California sea gulls in the world, with more than 160,000 gathering annually.

- Its marshes host one of the ten largest winter populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.

- More than 10,000 white pelicans nest on the lake's Gunnison Island, making it one of the two most important gathering places for these birds in the world.

- There are more ducks living around the lake than there are people in Utah.

- Three-quarters of all tundra swans using the western flyway to migrate stop at the lake.

- It's one of 10 critical sites in the northern hemisphere for shore birds like sand pipers and avocets. From 2 million to 5 million of them gather at the lake annually.

- The lake is the largest gathering place in the world for snowy plovers, an endangered species.

In light of those factors, Adler contends that the lake is among the most beautiful and productive ecosystems in the world, and that it should be protected. A commission would allow consideration of all kinds of factors that could impact it, both at the lake and upstream.

Cities are growing toward the lake because the mountains to the east make a natural barrier. The result may be that wetlands may be filled in and other developments take place next to the lake, he said.

"As we build the city westward toward the lake and fill in more and more wetlands, the more we hurt the lake itself . . .. We need to take a watershed approach."