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Can conserving water save the Great Salt Lake?

Study: Drop in water consumption could keep lake from becoming like Dead Sea

A couple walk near the Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. A new study shows water conservation could put off the need for new water development by as long as 2065 and help save the dwindling Great Salt Lake.
A couple walk near the Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. A new study shows water conservation could put off the need for new water development by as long as 2065 and help save the dwindling Great Salt Lake.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Dead Sea, bordering the West Bank, Israel and Jordan, is drying up at a rapid rate, leading to the formation of more than 5,000 sinkholes that are swallowing roads and other infrastructure.

Utah’s Great Salt Lake is in similar decline brought on by decades of drought and diversions from its tributaries that feed water to lawns and fields in northern Utah.

Terminal saline lakes like these two are in trouble around the world, and it is more than just aesthetics — whole economies, jobs, tourism and livelihoods are in jeopardy, along with ecosystems that support millions of birds and other wildlife.

But a recent study suggests that water users, by dropping their per-gallon-per-day consumption by 50 gallons, could delay a planned Utah project to siphon more water that feeds into the lake. The postponement could be as much as 45 years or longer if the practices take hold.

While the Great Salt Lake has not experienced a crush of sinkholes like the Dead Sea, it is something that should not be dismissed, said Great Salt Lake Coordinator Laura Vernon, with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. There have already been multiple local university studies probing the travel of wind-blown dust from the exposed lake bed at the Great Salt Lake, she added.

“I think Utah residents have been asked to be conservation minded quite a bit in the past, but this is a wake-up call to say if we don’t conserve, it will impact the Great Salt Lake — and there are negative consequences to that.”

This latest probe, call The Conservation Impacts Study commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, looked at water use in four large water districts and established that the daily average per person water consumption in 2015 was 232 gallons per day in these areas.

If water consumption could drop by 50 gallons per person in these large water districts, it would delay the need for the Bear River Development project by decades, the study says.

Prior studies have warned that based on current consumption patterns, the water levels in the Great Salt Lake could drop by an additional 11 feet into the future.

The consequences of a drying lake hurt human health, industry, the tourism sector and an area’s bottom line.

The council has previously noted that as a result of a greatly diminished Great Salt Lake, economic losses in Utah could total $1.69 billion to $2.17 billion per year or $25.4 billion to $32.6 billion over 20 years. It would trigger job losses of more than 6,500 positions in the mineral, brine shrimp and tourism industries.

“Upstream water use has a significant impact on the quantity of water reaching Great Salt Lake,” said Don Leonard, chairman of Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. “This is something we should all be concerned about since a dry lake could severely harm human health, our environment and Utah’s economy.”

The council has commissioned studies comparing the challenges faced by Great Salt Lake to other struggling saline lakes around the world that include Lake Urmia and Bakhtegan Lake in Iran; Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; Lake Poopó in Bolivia; Owens Lake, Salton Sea and Mono Lake in California; and the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan.

Once the water dries up and the lake bed is exposed — creating wind-blown dust that impacts human health and air quality — the costs mount.

Restoration at California’s Owens Lake, for example, is expected to reach $3.6 billion by 2025 and efforts to save one of California’s last remaining wetland habitats at Salton Sea through an overall remediation program may cost nearly $17 billion.

Even as those costs continue to climb, it is worth noting that even as expensive as the Owens Lake restoration project is, the Great Salt Lake is 19 times larger than the California water body.

Since the arrival of pioneers in Utah in 1847, the waters of the Great Salt Lake have shrunk by 48% and its levels diminished 11 feet due to drought and historical diversions from three rivers that flow into the largest terminal lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth largest terminal lake in the world.

The Bear River Development project proposes to tap 220,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Bear River to deliver to the state’s fast-growing populations.

State water officials have said much of the water taken from Bear River would be put back in the system through “return flows.” The actual depletion from the watershed is estimated to be 85,600 acre-feet. An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre at a depth of one foot.

Conservation practices, smaller water development projects and new technology helped cause a delay in the need for the project, with officials estimating it won’t have to come online until 2050 when it was originally envisioned to be necessary five years ago.

But more conservation, the council argues, is a critical strategy to help both the lake — and everything it supports — as well as Utah’s arid climate.

The council is calling for water conservation practices that include expanded use of efficient toilets, less watering of lawns during the week by at least a couple of times, high efficiency washing machines and replacing turf on curbing areas to cut down on water waste.

It says near universal metering of secondary water will reduce consumption and help the users meet their goals. The study says that reductions in lot sizes will help as well.

Some of those lifestyle changes may be a big lift for some Utahns, who delight in lush green lawns and other thirsty vegetation.

“I think it will take considerable effort,” Vernon said, but the choice is to act now or wait until the Great Salt Lake becomes a problem on the scale of Owens Lake, the Dead Sea or the Salton Sea. “We would be silly not to look at what is happening around the world before it is too late.”

But water use in the state’s metropolitan areas and elsewhere in the country’s crowded cities is changing — particularly among the younger generation who don’t hunger for the white picket fences and single family housing that dominated their parents’ landscaping desires.

Over the years, Envision Utah — a nonprofit quality growth organization — has looked at the changing landscape for housing and noted that transit oriented developments have taken off, as well as luxury condos and apartment complexes.

That naturally decreases consumption and the agricultural industry is trending toward more efficient practices, aided by federal WaterSmart grants that funnel money into projects that include lining canals and “smart” infrastructure that measures a soil moisture’s content to determine the actual need for irrigation.

Critics of both the Bear River Development project and the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline say Utah residents need to decrease their wasteful water practices and focus on conservation to meet the needs of future growth.

State and local water managers, particularly when it comes to the Lake Powell Pipeline, counter that it is foolhardy for areas like Washington County to hang its water needs on just one source, the Virgin River.

The fight to protect the Great Salt Lake has been going on for years, with a nod to its hemispheric importance as both a refueling stop for millions of migratory birds and as a nesting area for others. Some 80% of Utah’s wetlands surround the lake.

Advocates say the need to reduce water consumption is critical.

“Utahns need to adapt new water use habits in order for us to save the valuable resource that is Great Salt Lake,” said Leland Myers, former chair of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.