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Opinion: The Great Salt Lake will die unless we act soon

We need to realize that our water credit line is overdrawn, and the lake is calling the loan due

Two women walk on the beach near Saltair on the Great Salt Lake on Sunday, April 12, 2020.
Two women walk on the beach near Saltair on the Great Salt Lake on Sunday, April 12, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

I oftentimes refer to the Great Salt Lake as a mirror. A reflection, if you will, of how we’re doing as a society.

Spoiler alert: not very well.

The lake is at its lowest level in history, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We’ve been using the lake as a credit line for water that we continue to draw against, even though we have no way of paying it back. We are clearly living beyond our means, and it’s time for it to stop.

From 2010 to 2019, Utah had the most rapid growth of all the states, increasing our population by 16% to more than 3.2 million. More people living in more homes takes more water. So does all of the industrial development the state has been encouraging.

Take the Utah Inland Port. Where is the water going to come from to support that? If you ask Port Authority officials that question their answer is simple: They don’t know. Nor do they know what other environmental impacts the port is going to have. The Port Authority claims its project will be sustainable and that you “don’t have to choose between our environment and the economy.” Except that sometimes you do.

Forgive me for being skeptical, but I have the distinct feeling that no matter how bad the environmental impacts turn out to be from the port, it won’t matter one bit. The authority’s job is to make sure this thing gets built, and build it they will.

No money? No problem. The Port Authority will just issue $150 million in bonds, essentially printing its own money. But where are they going to borrow the water the port needs?

Everyone seems aghast at how bad the lake is doing, but there’s no mystery here. We’re the second driest state in the nation, and yet we use more water per person than any other state.

We’re spending water we don’t have, and it’s time for us to stop. I guess we won’t be happy until we’ve developed every square inch of this valley, but the answer can’t be to build more water projects to support this mad rush. Running the rivers dry has the same effect as pumping the water right out of the lake.

We need to realize that our water credit line is overdrawn, and the lake is calling the loan due. And we either pay the loan back or at some point that $1.3 billion a year that the lake generates is going to go away. It might not happen overnight, but unless we do something drastic it will happen, and we’re the ones who will have to tell our grandchildren why we didn’t do more to stop it from happening.

It’s time to tighten our belts and live within our water budget. Projects like the Inland Port need to ensure that every gallon of water that’s used is offset by a gallon saved elsewhere. We can’t continue to act like we can wait until tomorrow to figure out where all of this water is going to come from today.

Lynn de Freitas is the Executive Director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, a 501c3 membership organization whose mission is to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake ecosystem and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the lake through education, research, advocacy and the arts.