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. This edition focuses on Bear River water diversions and how soon conservation efforts can affect the lake.
Why is the Utah Division of Water Resources still advancing and funding Bear River Development?
Bear River Development is a water management plan that includes the construction of a pipeline and four dams in northern Utah. The Utah legislature passed the Bear River Development Act in 1991.
Bear River water naturally flows to the Great Salt Lake. Marisa Egbert, the Bear River Development project manager, said Bear River water diversions are a solution to meeting the state’s water needs, and that water conservation efforts should reduce the amount of water diverted from the river.
However, Darren Parry, former chair of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, said Bear River Development plans put the lake at risk.
“I think the reason they’re still doing [Bear River Development] is because … our governor is promoting economic growth, which brings people to Utah by the thousands,” Parry said.
Parry called Bear River Development “the easy answer” to a growing population. He suggested conserving water, enacting policies to help farmers use smarter agricultural practices, and relying on Indigenous people’s knowledge before diverting Bear River water.
“It is vital that we protect the Bear River and its water resources for the health and wellbeing of the lake,” Parry said.
Sarah Null, an associate professor in the Watershed Sciences Department at Utah State University, said water diversions contribute to the significant decline in the lake’s water levels.
“If we build future dams, we should expect the Great Salt Lake to keep declining,” Null said.
Bear River Development also raises major concerns for Nick Halberg, research and policy analyst for the Utah Rivers Council, who said the development project is projected to lower the lake’s water levels by an additional four feet.
“You can’t have Bear River Development and a healthy Great Salt Lake,” Halberg said. “The two cannot coexist.”
How soon will the changes we make truly affect the levels of the Great Salt Lake?
Experts can’t say for sure as the answer depends on a variety of factors, such as how much water people conserve.
“It really depends on what we do, and how extensive those efforts are, and how well we maintain those [efforts],” Dr. Carie Frantz, a geobiology and geochemistry professor at Weber State University, told the Great Salt Lake Collaborative.
Some efforts will help the Great Salt Lake more than others. People in the Wasatch Front, Frantz pointed out, would have to water their lawns “about 11 hours less per day, for the entire summer season, in order to make up for the water that has been lost since the record low last year.”
Frantz said her calculations highlighted a crucial observation: individual actions do make a difference, but alone they are not enough to save the lake.
“That’s because we have so much evaporation with warm temperatures,” Frantz said. “And also, because so much water is being diverted before it even makes it to those of us who are using it on our lawns in the Wasatch Front.”
Frantz suggested efforts be focused on rethinking the way water is used here.
“We need to be thinking about where our priorities lie in terms of our water usage,” she said, adding that reducing outdoor water use and conserving agricultural water use will help the lake.