With Utah in drought and the Great Salt Lake shriveling, Gov. Spencer Cox in June 2021 made an unusual request: He asked constituents to pray for rain.
“We need some divine intervention,” Cox said.
This winter, Utahns got their precipitation — it snowed like crazy. Nearly every mountain range is storing at least 1.5 times as much water as is typical. The extra runoff this spring could be an immense help to the state’s water woes.
But some scientists worry Utah is wasting a blessing.
State lawmakers chose not to implement short-term, emergency rescue measures during this winter’s legislative session to capitalize on that snowfall, replenish the lake and prevent its ecological collapse.
“We got a big nothingburger,” said Ben Abbott, a Brigham Young University assistant professor who helped author a January report warning the lake’s ecology was collapsing. “Are we going to continue to ask God for these gifts and we’re not doing what we can?”
Utah lawmakers earmarked more than $400 million this session as part of their long-term vision to address the state’s ongoing water supply concerns. To Abbott, that wasn’t enough.
The situation reflects tensions across Western states mired in a two-decade megadrought: Utah lawmakers are making historic investments in water supply and conservation, but the crisis has grown so severe and critical thresholds are so close that some worry gradual actions can’t measure up.
Prominent Utah lawmakers disagreed with Abbott over the legislative session, which closed earlier this month.
“He’s completely dead wrong about what we did and the impact it’s going to have on the lake,” said Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Republican, saying Abbott was an “alarmist.”
“This is year two of what I think is going to have to be a 10-year effort,” Wilson said. “We accomplished everything we set out to do and more. I feel really good about what we’ve done and where we’re at with the lake.”
Last fall, the Great Salt Lake’s water levels reached an all-time low. More concerning, the lake’s salinity soared to levels that left scientists unsure how much longer the creatures at the base of the food web — brine flies and brine shrimp adapted to extreme conditions — could hang on.
In January, Abbott and other scientists and conservationists released a report saying the lake needed “emergency measures” to stop the “ongoing collapse” and that the “lake as we know it is on track to disappear in five years.”
The consequences are huge.
Each year, some 10 million migratory birds — of more than 300 species — depend on the lake’s habitat to survive. Low water levels threaten several industries, including mining companies that evaporate lake brine to extract metals and commercial producers that farm brine shrimp, which are used in aquaculture.
As the lake dries up, more unhealthy dust is expected to blow into communities near the lake. Scientists are concerned because the dust contains toxic metals.
In January, scientists and politicians said this winter could be a turning point.
Utah’s accounts were flush with billions in unexpected revenues, and lawmakers promised they would spend generously on the lake. The good snow year portended a boost for lake levels.
In his budget, Cox proposed that Utah spend more than $560 million on water improvements, including $100 million to address the emergency and buy short-term agricultural water leases and “shepherd” that water to the Great Salt Lake.
When the legislative dust settled in March, lawmakers agreed to spend well north of $400 million in ongoing and one-time funding for the Great Salt Lake and water conservation, according to a list of budget appropriations.
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Lawmakers used $200 million to fund a program to optimize agricultural water use and invested in cloud seeding and water measuring infrastructure. They funded dust and air quality studies and created a new state office: the Great Salt Lake commissioner.
Lawmakers passed a bill to encourage sod removal and efficient landscaping, a bill to ban water reuse in the Great Salt Lake Basin so more water flows into the lake, and a bill to ensure the state has emergency powers if ecological or salinity thresholds are crossed.
Lawmakers chose not to set a specific target for lake levels or spend millions of dollars to boost lake levels by buying up short-term water rights.
Some argued such emergency measures weren’t necessary.
“We had an emergency plan in place that would have gotten enough water, in my opinion, to save the ecology” of the lake, state Sen. Scott Sandall said during a recorded media event. “Mother Nature helped us out. We didn’t have to pull that lever for emergency use.”
That lawmakers chose not to implement emergency measures during a good snow year irked some scientists, who said it was a prime opportunity to build a safety buffer and protect the lake’s ecology from the tipping points it neared last summer.
“This was the year of lost opportunity and they didn’t get the urgency of the situation,” said Kevin Perry, a University of Utah atmospheric scientist who has studied the lake and its dust problems. “The nice snowpack came at an opportune moment to save the lake, but it came at an inopportune moment for the Legislature.”
The debate over what’s best for the Great Salt Lake reflects water concerns elsewhere in the West, where policymakers are nearly out of runway on hard decisions and water users often collectively have rights to more water than what typically flows through each year.
In the Colorado basin, states are negotiating steep cuts to water use to keep the Colorado River flowing as the climate changes and the region grows.
The situation is perilously close to catastrophe: The region could be just years away from “dead pool” — when flow is cut off to lower portions of the river because it can’t pass through dams on Lake Powell or Lake Mead.
If states can’t agree to cuts, the federal Bureau of Reclamation might step in and impose its own. This year’s strong snowpack likely buys only months of additional time. The Colorado River’s flows provide water for about 40 million people.
In February, Cox ordered a state agency to raise a berm that separates the Great Salt Lake’s north and south arms.
It’s an act of triage: Separating the two arms is designed to leave the south with more water, which will help keep salinity levels tolerable. Water levels on the north arm, home to little life, are to be sacrificed.
State officials hope the measure can buy time as water conservation efforts take effect.
Some policy changes are beginning to have an impact.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Wednesday agreed to permanently donate the equivalent of more than 20,000 acre-feet of agricultural water for the lake’s benefit, something made easier by legislative changes lawmakers implemented in 2022.
Meantime, Perry said he expects the lake to get a net gain of more than 1.5 feet this year — some breathing room, but not much.
Lawmakers say they’re well aware.
“It’s one wet winter. It’s not going to wash away 20 years of long-term drought,” Wilson said. “We’re not taking it for granted.”