Efforts to bolster water levels in the Great Salt Lake are in line for a big dose of help from the state’s water providers and some of Utah’s leading businesses.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson on Thursday announced that the Weber Basin and Jordan Valley water conservancy districts will send an additional 30,000 acre feet of water to the lake, above and beyond what they’re otherwise expected to let loose. The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, one of several water providers around the state, serves Weber County and taps into the Pineview Reservoir, among others.
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“Their job is actually keeping their reservoirs,” Wilson said Thursday at a gathering in Ogden of leaders focused on protecting Great Salt Lake water levels, dubbed the Great Salt Lake Summit. “But they’re going to send that water down and help the lake.”
Moreover, Wilson unveiled plans to seek creation of a new public-private venture called Utah Water Ways, which would be overseen by a coalition of Utah business leaders who would spearhead grant programming and a publicity campaign to save water. It’s modeled after the Utah Clean Air Partnership, or UCAIR, focused on fighting air pollution by involving the broader public.
“It’s actually a team effort. It’s not something anyone can go solo on,” Wilson said at the event, held at the Eccles Conference Center and the continuation of the Great Salt Lake Summit held last January in Layton. “We cannot address this generational crisis without the help of all Utahns, every Utah business, every institution and every individual.”
With the Great Salt Lake at historic lows, Utah lawmakers and others have been redoubling efforts to conserve water and otherwise replenish the flow of wet stuff going into the lake to keep it from drying up. Thursday’s summit was aimed at bringing together experts and leaders on the topic and discussing some of the ideas to chip away at the problem.
“We just need water users stepping up and trying to act as soon as possible,” said Rep. Tim Hawkes, a Republican from Centerville and one of the speakers Thursday. “We need water, quite frankly, before the next summer cycle of evaporation starts because that’s when we’re potentially going to push over some of these critical thresholds.”
The 30,000 acre feet in extra water coming from the two water conservancy districts, to be released over the coming winter, is just a fraction of what the lake needs to get back to normal. But Wilson, a Kaysville Republican, hopes for more such allocations and said fixing the problem will require numerous incremental measures.
“The only way we’re going to solve this issue is acre foot by acre foot, piece by piece,” he said. The 30,000 acre feet is “probably about 10% of what we need. We get 10% somewhere else and 20% somewhere else and all of a sudden we’re talking real water. That’s the way this is going to happen.”
Meantime, the Utah Water Ways initiative, which sprang from Wilson’s office, will require passage of enabling legislation when lawmakers meet in the 2023 session early next year. But he’s already organized a coalition of partners to aid in the process and provide funding. They are Rio Tinto, the mining group; Intermountain Healthcare, the nonprofit health care provider; Zion’s Bank; Ivory Homes; and the Larry H. Miller Co., a consortium of companies.
Otherwise, the potential fixes to help boost Great Salt Lake water levels run the gamut. Potential solutions were a focus of discussion during one segment of Thursday’s summit between Wilson, Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry and Hawkes, who has focused on water-related bills as a lawmaker.
As the Great Salt Lake water level dips, exposing a larger expanse of lakebed, dangers posed by blowing dust — containing substances hazardous to humans — compound.
“Dust mitigation is enormously challenging, enormously expensive,” Hawkes said. Indeed, Ferry said fixing the problem, if it gets too far, could cost $30 billion to $50 billion, though he’s hopeful for remedies before the issue gets that dire.
One possible fix to the lack of water that’s drawn attention and raised eyebrows is building some sort of pipeline to transfer Pacific Ocean water to the lake to replenish it. “That might be one of the pipe dreams but it’s something we need to discuss,” Ferry said.
He said a pipe measured around 13 feet in diameter would be required, costing perhaps $60 billion to $100 billion. “That’s really expensive. But what is the cost to do nothing? What is the cost if we continue down this road?” Ferry said.
The state hasn’t earmarked funding for such a program and many issues would have to be sorted ahead of time, like if the water would have to be desalinated and more.
Ferry also spoke enthusiastically about cloud seeding, thus making storms more productive when they occur. Seeding can bolster the yield of a snowstorm by 10%, he said, which can add up over time.
“It’s just a small amount. But if you can increase your overall annual snowpack from 100 inches to 110 inches or 400 inches to 440 … you’re talking about significant increase in runoff,” Ferry said. More snowpack means more runoff, which leads to fuller reservoirs and more water to let loose into the Great Salt Lake.
The Utah Division of Water Resources currently allocates around $350,000 a year for water seeding, with other taxing entities matching that, making for an annual total of around $700,000 to $800,00. Ferry suggested boosting that to $2 million a year, with a one-time investment of $3 million to get the needed infrastructure in place.
As is, many households don’t have meters measuring the quantity of secondary water they use to water their lawns. Adding meters to homes, though — already a focus in Utah — can go a long way in spurring conservation by prodding people, knowing how much they’re using, to cut back.
“Simply giving the people information about how much they’re using relative to their neighbors, you see these massive savings, 35% to 40%,” Hawkes said. “And those savings endure. Just give people information and they respond.”
Agricultural users account for the largest chunk of water use and “optimization” efforts at that level are also key. Focusing on ag use is “the most effective and efficient way we can invest to actually reduce the demand for water,” Ferry said.
U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and John Barrasso of Wyoming as well as U.S. Rep. Blake Moore also addressed Thursday’s meetings. Lee proposed developing more water storage projects to aid in the Great Salt Lake efforts, tapping into federal grant money.