The Utah Rivers Council unveiled its ambitious 4200 Project — a year in the works — that includes 12 recommendations including drastic measures, such as restructuring water rates and banning ornamental grass altogether in Utah.

“There is no goal to restore the GSL by Utah and that is really a problem,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the council. “Gov. (Spencer) Cox has been reluctant to support a water elevation goal and that has allowed him to celebrate minor successes.”

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Frankel said the lake needs an additional eight million acre-feet of water and to get there, even if every northern Utah farmer stopped using water and every man, woman and child in northern Utah didn’t use any water, it would still take 4.5 years to get there.

“(This is) to give a sense of scale of how big this expedition is that we are on. We are not climbing the foothills. We are climbing Mount Everest or K2 and we need to be realistic and honest with ourselves,” Frankel said.

The council, among its most ambitious goals, aims to stop all new upstream diversions to the Great Salt Lake not only in Utah, but the neighboring states of Idaho and Wyoming that are part of the Bear River Compact.

“We need to work with the community of farmers in Wyoming and Idaho to purchase their water where we can and invest in efficiency measures, but make sure that the water saved through efficiency measures on farms is actually delivered to the Great Salt Lake and not like we ‘oh, we need to do that someday,’ which is the current policy in Utah,” Frankel said.

“So that means we need to start working with Idaho and Wyoming and, for that matter, federal funding sources so we can start to work together to transfer surplus and wasted water on the farms of Idaho, Wyoming and Utah to deliver to the Great Salt Lake.”

The council’s dozen legislative recommendations include:

  • Overhaul the “broken” state agricultural optimization program to make sure all the water saved gets to the Great Salt Lake.
  • Quit subsidizing water rates through property taxes so the true cost of water is reflected.
  • Create a mechanism by which water rights are permanently secured for the benefit of the Great Salt Lake and not just leased.
  • Require a strict accounting for all secondary water use.

The council’s 140-plus page report takes a deep dive into what it says has been a systemic mismanagement of a vital ecosystem not only important to Utah but to all residents of the United States and beyond.

The Great Salt Lake is the largest remaining wetland ecosystem in the American West, supporting 330 migratory bird species totaling eight to 10 million birds that travel from every country in South and Central America. Many birds gather at the Great Salt Lake in larger numbers than anywhere else on the planet, according to the council, landing the lake as a key resting place on the Pacific Flyway

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Frankel contends the state’s agricultural optimization program, in which $200 million of new money was directed last year, is a failed effort because it does not guarantee any of the water that is “saved” makes it to the Great Salt Lake.

“There’s been descriptions that it’s actually going to lead to Great Salt Lake water deliveries. In actuality, there’s nothing in that statute that requires saved water on these farms to be delivered to the Great Salt Lake. There’s been a lot of talk about that, but there’s no requirement,” he said.

Utah’s commissioner over the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food rejected Frankel’s claim that the program is broken.

“The Utah Agriculture Water Optimization program has been a successful effort by the state as well as Utah’s farmers and ranchers who have come together to find effective solutions to agriculture water conservation. This program has effectively funded over 300 projects, the majority of which have been in the Great Salt Lake basin, to reduce water depletion and diversion, and early data shows the program has been successful in those efforts,” Craig Buttars said.

“Without the real life, applicable solutions provided by this incentive program, Utah’s agricultural community would be unable to make the necessary changes while keeping our food supply intact. This program is working, and we continue to look for advancement and improvements to further our efforts,” Buttars said.

The agency also pointed to a study by Utah State University that details the benefits of such a program, including less depletion of reservoir storage, surface water and groundwater resources. And in an area that drains into the Great Salt Lake, that matters.

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Frankel said leaders need to be held accountable, instead of digging through the cushions of a couch to come up with spare change to make a “house” payment on the lake. Rather, they need to come with a meaningful mortgage payment or plan to keep Utah’s most critical ecosystem vibrant.