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Still Great?

Decreasing water levels threaten the Great Salt Lake’s future.

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Last summer, I joined a team of yachters out on the Great Salt Lake competing in a weekly race. I landed on a vessel owned by Tim Adams, an avid yachter who has been sailing for more than a quarter century.

"If you can sail here, you can sail anywhere," he said. "I've sailed in the Mediterranean near Turkey, the South Pacific, up and down the West Coast to Mexico. This is the most difficult and challenging place to sail. It's an amazing place."

The team of yachters certainly had their work cut out for them that evening. In what to me was nothing short of utterly confusing, the six of them scurried around the vessel, pulling on ropes, unfurling sails, shouting about aft, backstay, tack, and, in general, speaking a parlance of which I know nothing about and am not remotely qualified to convey.

I'm told the boat we are on usually takes first place; this evening, it came in last. Some things went wrong that, as mentioned, I don't know enough about to explain. I presume (but not fully sure) it had nothing to do with me.

It doesn't matter; drinks and barbeque were on hand, as well as good-natured camaraderie. The Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, established on May 10, 1877, meets every week to enjoy sailing on the lake's salty waters. Good spirits prevail as club members joke and jibe each other over this attempt to best each other in the weekly race. When asked about the lake, the sailors speak admirably.

"It's stunningly beautiful; the water is typically glassy smooth," Adams says. "It has its own magical quality."

Their weekly nautical avocation has been hampered, however, by the well-documented and highly visible fact that the Great Salt Lake is disappearing. Among other factors, this has impacted recreational sailing, primarily due to the difficulties of entering and exiting the Great Salt Lake Marina.

"Ten years ago, we had some 45 boats down there, now there's 20, so now we're at less than half capacity, and certainly it's dwindling with the decreased water levels," Adams says, referring to the number of boats venturing out to race. He adds that he and his wife have downsized their own vessel in order to handle the lower water level.

Janet Robins, commodore of the yacht club, says meeting the challenges has been a struggle. After a lengthy battle, the Legislature approved funds for a dredging (the removal of excess sand, silt, mud, etc.) of the marina two years ago. But the continued problematic lake level, in addition to skepticism over the efficacy of the dredging effort, mean current conditions have still been a far cry from smooth sailing for local yachters.

"Because the marina has not been maintained properly, combined with low water conditions, our sailing activities have been severely limited," Robins says.

In November 2016, the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest level in recorded history. Although the lake levels fluctuate over the years and we have been in a years-long drought (interrupted by this year's above-average precipitation), a study conducted by researchers at Utah State University that same year, showed that water diversions of rivers that feed the Great Salt Lake over the last 170 years are primarily responsible for diminished lake levels of 11 feet, or 48% reductions in volume.

Some blame climate change and drought conditions. While it's true in the long-term that climate change will have an effect on the Great Salt Lake, Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a USU professor who helped author the study, writes via email, "While we're waiting for climate change impacts, the lake may very well be dried up by water diversions and development."

Seeing the direct effects of these upstream diversions, Robins shared this sentiment and has a bleak view of the future for the yacht club.

"With proposed diversions, we will probably not be able to enjoy [the lake] for more than another year or so," she says.

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What Happens If We Lose the GSL
This year's above-average wet season has been a source of optimism for Robins and the other club members about the prospects for the 2019 sailing season. Some of the larger boats, unable to get out on the water last year, are able again to voyage out into the vast saline expanse.

"Because of the March and April moisture, we are now nearly on par with the phenomenal 2011 water season, where we came up 5 feet and only went down about 1.5 feet," reads an optimistic water report from the yacht club's harbormaster, Dave Shearer. "We need to hope for a wet and cool May and then have the snow come down late May and into June."

Rainy seasons do occur, as they famously did in the 1980s. At that time, the Great Salt Lake swelled to such a size that its waters reached and threatened to erode the base of Interstate 80. As a result, massive pumps were installed to divert water into other basins and increase the rate of evaporation. Mothballed in 1989, the $60 million pumps haven't been used since.

Sporadic rainy seasons notwithstanding, the core issues driving a downward trend in lake levels over the long-term remain unremedied, and continued reduction of the Great Salt Lake could have profound effects on Utah.

As one club member tells me, "If this lake disappears, people are going to have much bigger issues than what happens to the yacht club."

One such issue is the impact on the local economy. As lake levels go down, so too could the profitability of the industries on the Great Salt Lake. Bringing in roughly $1.32 billion a year, there are a diverse group of operations, such as mineral extraction and brine shrimp harvesting, that depend on adequate water levels.

The brine shrimp industry, in particular, could be completely wiped out if lake levels get too low. In order to thrive, brine shrimp require a "Goldilocks" zone of salinity. If diversions and drought bring this level of salinity too high, however, then the shrimp don't survive. Not only would this impact the $57 million industry, but it would also reduce forage for birds that rely on brine shrimp as a source of food.

Mineral extraction industries, such as U.S. Magnesium and Morton Salt, might survive but would incur heavy costs that come from modifying their intake structures. In fact, they already have incurred some of them: In recent years, both companies have had to reorganize operations and extend canals in order to be able to draw out water due to receding lake levels.

A representative at Morton Salt declined to comment, but did say that Morton has "contingency plans in place to help keep [their] operations up and running in the event of a disruption," and that the impacts of proposed water diversions "need to be further studied and alternative water conservation solutions should continue to be explored."

All seem to agree it's a delicate balance to protect the interests of industry and the ecosystem supported by the Great Salt Lake.

"It's a challenge because the lake is an extraordinarily complex system," Andrew Rupke, an industrial minerals geologist who works with the Utah Geological Survey, says. "If I've learned anything in the last eight years, it's very complex—you peel back one layer, and there's several more."

Besides economic impact, health and quality of life are other pressing concerns. In his research, Kevin D. Perry, a former chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, has found that, in various locations on the currently 750 square miles of exposed lakebed, the level of some elements exceeded EPA Regional Screening Levels.

"We've spent two years collecting and analyzing samples and looked at heavy metal concentrations we would need to be concerned about," Perry says. "We found that in some locations, four elements exceeded Regional Screening Levels for both industrial and residential exposures: arsenic, lithium, zirconium and lanthanum."

According to Perry, particulate matter exposure itself (i.e., dust), regardless of consideration of heavy metal contaminants, is linked to a number of health concerns. These include lung function problems, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

As lake levels decrease, the risk of dust exposure can also increase.

"For every foot that lake levels decrease in Gilbert Bay, the result is an almost 12% increase in the number of dust hotspots in that area," Perry says.

Despite these findings, Perry notes that, due to the low percentage of silt and clay in the Great Salt Lake (which are more prone to become airborne), as well as protective crusts, the actual exposure to Utah residents should not currently be cause for alarm. More study of exposure downwind is needed, he says.

If Utahns are afflicted by dust storms as a result of the diminishing lake, it wouldn't be the first time such phenomena has been reported. California's Owens Lake, once a vibrant saline body of water, became dessicated after years of excessive water diversions into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The result is that Owens Lake became the single-greatest source of PM-10 (particulate matter that is 10 micrometers or less in diameter) air pollution in the United States. According to the Los Angeles Times, the thousands of acres of exposed lakebed and resultant dust storms have contributed to higher cancer rates and myriad other health issues upon neighboring inhabitants. Efforts to rehabilitate the lake has cost billions of dollars, and although it continues to improve, it remains only a shadow of its former self.

The Great Salt Lake doesn't have as much silt and clay, nor face as high of winds as does Owens Lake. Still, if Owens serves as a cautionary tale, another body of water, Mono Lake (also in California), serves as a counter-example of how people can successfully fight to preserve a saline lake in peril.

Having also suffered from increasingly lower water levels due to diversions into the LA Aqueduct, the Mono Lake Committee and the National Audubon Society went to the Supreme Court in an effort to protect the lake through the Public Trust Doctrine. This principle states that certain natural resources must be protected for public use, and, in the case of Mono Lake, ensured a minimum water delivery for its preservation. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, and, although the lake is still at historically low levels, it was successfully preserved.

"Public trust was used on Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra Basin, and we consider Mono Lake a sister lake of the Great Salt Lake because it's on the opposite side of the Great Basin," Friends of the Great Salt Lake (FOGSL) executive director, Lynn de Freitas, says. "We can look to it as inspiration. Owens Lake didn't have that luxury. After Owens went, and then Mono Lake was on its way of going out, it became, 'No, you can't just do this.'"

In fact, it was the Mono Lake Committee and their successful efforts that inspired the formation of FOGSL, an organization whose goal is to raise public awareness and appreciation of the Great Salt Lake.

Back in the '90s, founding members of FOGSL visited with the Mono Lake Committee, who urged Utahns to take similar conservation steps.

"At that meeting, some members of the Mono Lake Committee said to the delegation from Utah, 'Why don't you do for the Great Salt Lake what we did for Mono Lake? Your lake is right next to a growing population, the ecological and economical values and public trust responsibility, they're the same—it's right there," de Freitas recalls.

Although the Public Trust Doctrine hasn't yet been executed, FOGSL continues to lead efforts to educate and strategize ways to prevent losing the Great Salt Lake. Every two years, they hold a forum on key issues facing it.

Additionally, FOGSL's efforts have led to important discussions at the state level related to Utah's overall water strategy. The goal to have a wide-ranging conversation on water issues that affect the lake so that consensus, understanding and strategy can be reached, de Freitas says, continues to progress.

"We have come out the other side of some really difficult conversations," she adds, referring to the work she and other parties did on a recent governor-commissioned 50-year state water strategy. "And there are responsible recommendations we should all take to heart and think about to get traction on those different fronts so we can use that pioneer spirit that we as Utahns have."

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The Bear River Diversion Project
In 1991, the state passed the Bear River Development Act, authorizing the Division of Water Resources and water conservancy districts to look into the planning and development of the Bear River Development Project (BRDP). Under this plan, up to 220,000 acre feet of water will be diverted from the Bear River after the construction of a series of dams. Its estimated cost is $2.5 billion.

It was projected in the early 1990s that BRDP would need to commence in 2015, a time when Utah was looking at very rapid population growth. It turned out that wasn't necessary. In fact, BRDP was recently pushed back until 2045. Reasons cited for the delay include a change in population projection, as well as successful water conservation efforts.

A concern many have is that the Bear River is the single largest source of water for the Great Salt Lake, providing an average 60% of the inflow each year.

Eric Millis, director of the Division of Water Resources, says that although diversions on the Bear River would have an impact on the Great Salt Lake, they might also be necessary to meet the needs of the population.

"[BRDP] may well get pushed off beyond the 2045 deadline if these conservation efforts and other efforts continue to be successful," Millis says. "But we're keeping it in our pocket as a possibility because we think that's a wise thing to do in order to ensure we can meet our water needs in the future.

"It's hard to argue at this point what the population will look like in 2060 or 2065, but if it turns out to be what we're looking at, there will need to be some things done," Millis adds. "The BRDP is a possibility to supply that need."

Keeping BRDP as an option in the future means that, despite the delay, planning for its development continues.

Nick Schou, director of conservation at the Utah Rivers Council, an advocacy group for the protection of Utah's rivers and riparian areas, is alarmed by the amount of planning going into a project not deemed necessary for decades.

"When you look at it, there's no indication that the state is slowing down at all," Schou says, adding that a records request filed by the Utah Rivers Council showed proponents of the BRDP are lobbying legislators for funding for right-of-way and property acquisition. "If they really were saying, 'Hey, we might not need that until later,' and, 'We're doing so great on conservation,' then I would ask, 'Why are you lobbying legislators?'

"I've been doing this for six years, and there's still no actual numbers to justify this purported need for the project," Schou adds.

A scathing 2015 audit of the Department of Water Resources' projections for Utah's future water consumption seems to bolster this point. Skeptical of the agency's projections, the Utah Rivers Council successfully lobbied the Legislature to perform the audit. It found that the agency's projections were based on unreliable data and used Utah's historically high water usage as a basis for anticipating future needs. The study points out that some areas in Utah have had lower water usage rates than indicated in the projections in recent years, and that there are a variety of ways to lower it in the state overall.

This is a pattern seen in other dry, western states adjacent to Utah.

"If you look at major growing urban areas in the West, from Denver to Phoenix to southern Nevada and LA, they've grown exponentially in population over the last 25 years, while total water use is actually staying about the same, or even gone down," Schou says.

The audit also pointed out an important issue in Utah's water policy that could be modified to lessen incentives for water use: the subsidization of water rates through property tax. The state's water conservancy districts collect property tax, allowing them to sell water at some of the cheapest rates in the nation. This is somewhat unique to Utah: A survey of western water suppliers outside of Utah revealed about 80% of them don't collect property tax as a source of revenue.

This practice creates a situation that provides little incentive for Utahns to aim for greater water conservancy. As the audit points out: "Pricing water below cost prevents normal market forces from taking effect; without a strong pricing signal, consumers are not led to use the resource efficiently."

The BRDP was authorized by the Legislature in what's known as the Bear River Compact. An interstate agreement between Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, it allows all three states to take up to 550,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear River. But as Wurtsbaugh notes in a recent paper, when the compact was formed, "the public assumed that any water that reached the lake was wasted."

"Now that we have a better idea of the effects additional water development can have, we are better poised to choose how to go forward," Wurtsbaugh continues. "There are now serious discussions by a few legislators and some of the top water lawyers in the state on how regulations and laws can be changed to get water for the lake. Moreover, the general public is aware that water development will further lower the lake, and that dust storms might ensue."

For his part, Schou is optimistic that future water needs and conservation can be effectively balanced.

"This is one of those situations where we can really have a win-win," Schou says. "We're not here to say that we're not all benefiting from some development, but we really shouldn't be developing anything we don't need."

Lynn De Freitas - CHARLES UIBEL
  • Charles Uibel
  • Lynn De Freitas

A Lovable Oddity
At The Great Salt Lake Park, just off I-80, I look out into the vast expanse of the waters, clearly and visibly at a low point from this vantage point, evidenced by the stretches of exposed lakebed. The barren landscape is stark scenery against the backdrop of an azure sky, and Frary Peak on Antelope Island juts into the atmosphere.

I am told this park is one of Utah's most popular (and most profitable) tourist attractions. Some of the visitors, I suspect, might only agree with historian Dale Morgan's droll observation that the "Great Salt Lake is an ironical joke of nature—water that is itself more desert than a desert." But others find, like the yacht club members, wonderment and admiration for the lake's eccentricities.

It is indeed a unique place, a sight to behold. The Great Salt Lake is a lovable oddity that is easy to forget about if not visited. As Captain Howard Stansbury, the eponymous surveyor of Stansbury Island, said of the experience of being on the lake's salty waters, "All is stillness and solitude profound."

As I'm looking out, a tourist bus pulls up, and dozens of elderly folk pour out of the bus. They have been traveling from San Francisco, and while using the facilities is certainly one of their main priorities, it is also a chance to see the world-famous body of water. Tourists from all over the world make this stop; these ones happen to be French.

I talk to a couple who have stepped out onto an outlook near the marina and ask what they think of the lake. Although they don't speak much English, "beautiful" is their reply. Perhaps the motivation for preserving such a rare natural feature is captured in such a simple sentiment.

As the tourists reboard the bus after their brief stop, I can't help but wonder: If we continue to lose this majestic icon and landmark, is it destined to become a mere memory of a lake once deemed to be great? Not if local advocates have a say.

"I want to keep the 'Great' in the Great Salt Lake," de Freitas muses. "If we continue to talk about the lake as being great, then there's a lot to do to maintain that."

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