The Great Salt Lake Collaborative is a group of news, education and media organizations – including The Globe, Amplify Utah and student journalists at Salt Lake Community College – that have come together to better inform and engage the public about the crisis facing the Great Salt Lake.
The Great Salt Lake Collaborative surveyed audience questions about the lake, and The Globe is publishing experts’ answers to your questions weekly. This week’s edition highlights the agencies charged with lake management, and what’s needed to save the lake.
What will it realistically take to bring water back up to healthy levels?
Water-wise, it will take delivering the equivalent of two Bear Lakes to the Great Salt Lake.
Despite this daunting task, Brad Wilson, Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, told the Great Salt Lake Collaborative he feels positive about restoring the lake to former levels.
“With concerted efforts, and with a little help from mother nature, I am optimistic that we can get the lake levels back to healthy places,” Wilson said, adding that the lake’s restoration will require a coordinated effort over the next five to 10 years.
Joseph Wheaton, professor of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, said determining a timeline for the lake’s recovery is challenging. “It’s such a difficult problem, and it’s so non-linear,” he said.
That’s because climate change creates many possibilities for unpredictable outcomes. Speaker Wilson also expressed concern about droughts and climate change influencing lake restoration efforts.
“What’s becoming more common is irregularity,” Wheaton said, “and that can also shift [the outcome] in other ways.”
Wheaton believes attention should be focused on water management, watershed health and adaptation strategies.
Even though climate change adds an element of unpredictability to the lake’s restoration, Wheaton said the community can still help right now. The most important action people can take, he said, is to halt water use for resource development, such as river water diversions for farmland irrigation.
Speaker Wilson expects to see an increase in water flows going to the lake in five to ten years. “What kind of climate cycle we’re in at that point is anyone’s guess,” he said.
Who oversees the lake’s management?
Seven state entities oversee different parts of the lake.
“It takes a village,” said Laura Vernon, a coordinator who helps run the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, yet another group that helps monitor the lake. The Utah Legislature created the council in 2010 to advise on the lake’s sustainable use, protection and development.
Here is a list of that village:
This division’s involvement with the lake “isn’t enormous,” according to Vernon. The division has some involvement with oil and gas exploration at the lake, like when tar seeps resided next to the Spiral Jetty. Vernon said the division would work to restore the site if any similar incident were to happen again.
This department manages the various state parks across Utah, which includes the Great Salt Lake. “There are a couple state parks that are around the Great Salt Lake, or in, depending on how you look at it,” Vernon said.
Those parks include Antelope Island State Park, Willard Bay State Park and the Great Salt Lake State Park.
“[The Division of State Parks are] the ones who perform search and rescue operations, should they be required on Great Salt Lake,” she said.
This division is charged with planning, conserving, developing and protecting Utah’s water resources. Vernon said this division manages the movement of water around the state.
This agency is responsible for the appropriation and distribution of Utah’s valuable water resources. “They authorize water leases and water rights to individual owners,” Vernon said.
People who want to donate water rights to the Great Salt Lake can file a change application with this division. “The applicant would need to work with the existing water right holder and the Division of Water Rights,” Vernon said.
According to their website, this division serves Utah by managing, sustaining and enhancing the state’s wildlife. Vernon said this includes managing wildlife on the lake, such as birds, brine shrimp and brine flies.
The Utah Geological Survey, or UGS, is an entity under the Utah Department of Natural Resources. Vernon said this division monitors the lake’s current conditions and saline levels.
What agencies will apply funds allocated by the Legislature, and who will ensure those funds are spent properly?
Two new state bills, passed during this year’s general session, appropriated $45 million toward conserving and managing the lake.
HB410 created the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program to oversee a $40 million water trust that will identify conservation and sustainability projects, according to Great Salt Lake Collaborative partner Deseret News.
In June, the state handed oversight of the program to the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. They established four goals:
- Retain and enhance water flows to the lake.
- Improve water quality and quantity in the watershed.
- Conserve and restore upstream habitats.
- Integrate water quality and management plans.
Both conservation organizations can obtain water rights for the Great Salt Lake.
The other bill, HB429, sets aside $5 million to “ensure coordination among water agencies by creating the Great Salt Lake Watershed Integrated Water Assessment,” according to the Deseret News. This assessment will study the best water management practices.
The Utah Division of Water Resources must complete said assessment by November 2026, though it will report its plan for the assessment to the Legislature by September 2023.
“I expect that they’ll have some very detailed ideas of who is going to coordinate the conservation [by September 2023],” said HB429 sponsor Rep. Kelly Miles.
Do you have a question about the lake? Visit the Great Salt Lake Collaborative website to participate in an audience survey.