Who’s to blame for our Great Salt Lake problem?
The Great Salt Lake is drying up, harming global ecosystems, diminishing Utah’s quality of life, and threatening human health. Toxic dust storms are now whipping up lakebed dust containing dangerous levels of cancer-causing arsenic and carrying it across the Wasatch Front.
Here’s the kicker: there is plenty of water available in the lake’s watershed to not only cover this toxic dust but to actually save the Great Salt Lake from drying up. But doing this requires letting river water flow into the lake without diverting it.
“We do have the water; we are just using it for other purposes,” says Kevin Perry, the atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah. His two-year research project first revealed that lower water levels have exposed a toxic lakebed with high concentrations of arsenic, which over time can lead to lung, bladder, and skin cancer as well as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The lake needs to be about 10 feet deeper to cover up most of the dust emission hot spots in Farmington Bay, which is the bay closest to residents along the Wasatch Front, Perry says. It would take about 7.5 million acre-feet of water to fill the lake to this level.
To just maintain the current water level, the Great Salt Lake would need 30 percent more inflow from the major rivers each year. But to stop the decline of the lake, it would take far more water than that additional 30 percent river flow, according to Perry.
The diminishing waters at the 1699-square-mile lake have been exacerbated by warmer temperatures, two decades of a mega-drought, and the worst two years of snowpack the state has ever seen. In recent years, river flows have been down 19 percent compared to the 20th-century average, according to Brad Udall, a Colorado State University climate and water scientist. A Utah State University study suggests that the lake is 17 feet below its long-term average, and most of that loss—11 feet—is caused by humans.
So who’s to blame for the Great Salt Lake drying up?
“We live in the second driest state in the nation, but we treat water like it’s a commodity that’s always going to be there,” Perry says.
According to the Utah Rivers Council, 85 percent of the Great Salt Lake’s watershed is used for agriculture, 7.5 percent for industrial, and 7.5 percent for residential.
Utah’s largest water rights holder is the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which has rights for more than 800,000 acre-feet in the Great Salt Lake Basin. (For comparison, an acre-foot of water is equivalent to water measuring one-foot deep spread across an acre.)
Those water rights are associated with large-scale federal projects that store water in reservoirs, such as Jordanelle, Willard Bay, and Deer Creek, which are managed by conservancy districts or water users associations for agriculture, municipal use, or industrial use. All told, tens of thousands of farmers, individual residences, large-scale agricultural operations, municipalities, and industrial operations divert as many as 2 million acre-feet of water upstream from Bear River, Weber River, and Utah Lake and Jordan River drainages, according to the Utah Division of Water Rights.
That’s the equivalent of 651.7 billion gallons of water being pulled from the river before it hits the Great Salt Lake.
Meanwhile, the lake loses 2.9 million acre-feet of water to evaporation over the course of one summer, in addition to today’s historic depletion. The lake levels will likely continue to decrease until fall or early winter, according to estimates by the US Geological Survey.
Over the past decade, Democrat and Republican lawmakers have proposed dozens of water conservation bills and proposed changes to water laws, but special interest groups that benefit from billion-dollar water pipeline or reservoir projects have either killed those bills or watered them down to be less effective. In fact, special interest groups contribute 82 percent of the campaign donations to state lawmakers.
As the lakebed continues to dry up, ecosystems around the globe hang in the balance of what happens in Utah. “Time is of the essence,” says Sarah Null, a Utah State University professor of watershed management. “We still have a window to save the Great Salt Lake, but that window is closing. It will take a combination of efforts.”
A global health concern
For 15 years, wildlife biologists have sounded the alarm on the consequences that would come from a dwindling lake—the impact on 330 species of birds and the brine shrimp industry among them. But it wasn’t until five years ago when worrisome dust clouds began whipping around Salt Lake City, leaving dust on deck railings and car windshields, that people started wondering what was going on with the Great Salt Lake drying up, Perry says.
In 2017, the University of Utah scientist went to investigate. He spent two years riding his bike over 800 miles of exposed lake collecting samples. In 2019, his tests confirmed the heavy metals and high concentration of arsenic in the exposed lakebed. The drying lake has since taken on national attention, and in recent months was the center of a New York Times op-ed, an episode of the John Oliver Show, and two pieces by investigative news organization ProPublica, which all criticized the state for its poor water management.
The publicity prompted Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to post a long Twitter rant in July, touting the state’s many accomplishments, including a strategic photo of him last fall in front of the drying lake, conferences held to study the lake and solutions, more than a dozen water bills introduced this past legislative session, a flight taken by lawmakers over the lake to understand the enormity of the problem, and hiring critic and former state House Rep. Joel Ferry as the director of the Department of Natural Resources. The governor also asked people to pray for rain.
His tweets received mostly hostile responses from the public, with many expressing concern that Utah isn’t doing enough to save the lake and others blasting the state’s water policies. “We’re literally decades late to the party,” says Zachary Frankel, founder and executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which has been working to change Utah’s water laws and save the lake. “Las Vegas, Denver, Tucson, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Los Angeles—they’re all way ahead of us in water conservation policy.”
Water shouldn't be this cheap in the desert
Utah cities use far more water than other western cities. In Salt Lake City, citizens use 240 gallons of water per person per day. Compare that to Tucson, Arizona, where residents use 120 gallons per person per day, and Denver, which has an average usage rate of 142 gallons, according to the Utah Rivers Council. These use tiered water pricing, which makes it cheaper for residents who use less water. In the case of Tucson, residents pay $2 per 1,000 gallons used. But when they start to use 5,000 gallons, the price doubles—and then doubles again at 12,000 gallons.
Now let’s look at Sandy, Utah, where it costs less than $2 for the first 5,000 gallons but costs $2.53 for anything up to 35,000 gallons used, according to data collected by the Utah Rivers Council. That pricing is about five times less than Tucson water. Salt Lake City uses tiered pricing but starts and ends at the same cost as Sandy. St. George, which has 11 golf courses, charges close to $1 for 5,000 gallons of water per month and just over $2 for up to 50,000 gallons. Moab starts charging $1 for water at 3,500 gallons, but pricing is flat at $2 after 10,000 gallons and beyond.
The reason it’s so cheap is because the state allows Utah’s largest water conservation districts to charge a property tax on homes, businesses, and cars, and that money covers a big chunk of those water companies’ revenue. In the case of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, $11 million, or one-third of the total revenue, came from property taxes in 2019.
In other words: Utah residents may not know the true cost of the water they use because it’s hidden in a property tax.
Meanwhile, government organizations and nonprofits don’t pay property tax and tend to use tremendous amounts of water and pay no more than an individual resident. A single elementary school, for instance, could use a million gallons in one watering, but tons of water if watering four times a month. “It’s literally off the charts, and yet it’s paying basically the same water rates as a resident who uses very little water,” Frankel says.
Ferry says measuring water usage varies by city. Some cities, for instance, may use more, but they get “credit” by taking used water, cleaning it, and returning it to lakes and rivers. Nonetheless, he believes it’s important to look at how Utah charges for water to ensure pricing is actually in line with its value. “I’m a big believer in market principles,” he says.
We need to stop holding water in reservoirs
We need to stop holding water in reservoirs
Even if major conservation efforts are made across the state, the Great Salt Lake will still be doomed if the state pulls the trigger on the $2.4 billion Bear River project, which would create as many as 30 reservoirs that siphon off 220,000 acre-feet of water to serve five water conservation districts, says Lynn de Freitas, director of the FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, a nonprofit that has been trying to protect the lake for 20-plus years. The lake gets the lion’s share of its water from the Bear River.
“How do we accrue sufficient amounts of water on an annual basis long term?” she asks. “The project is in no way, shape, or form good for the Great Salt Lake.”
Advocates of the project claim that Utah will need the reservoirs to meet population needs. But a 2015 audit of water usage in the state confirmed that with widespread conservation, there would be enough water for both the Great Salt Lake and its people.
The problem is that, up until this year, the Great Salt Lake has not been a top priority when it comes to water. For years, any river water sent to the Great Salt Lake was considered “wasted water” because the lake’s alkaline and salty water had no human use. Historically, there was enough water for people, farms, and the environment. “Up until the last 10 years, there hasn’t been a huge impetus to say we’ve got to do these really heavy conservation measures,” Ferry says.
In fact, water rights owners could not even donate their water rights to go downstream to the Great Salt Lake because it was not deemed a “beneficial use” under Utah water law. The state operates under a “use it or lose it” water law, in which rights holders must divert river water upstream for a designated beneficial use, whether it’s irrigation, livestock, industrial, storage, or other use. If they don’t use that water for more than seven years and allow it to stay in the river, they risk losing those rights. Similarly, if they use only a portion of the water, they risk losing it. Consequently, rights holders tend to use that water just to comply with the law even if they don’t necessarily need it.
Frank Mueller, a spokesman for the Utah Division of Water Rights, notes that if a rights holder is unable to use the right for its intended purpose, they can file to use less or none of their water rights. Wasting it for uses other than what is intended also puts their rights at risk.
This year, lawmakers passed House Bill 33, which designates the Great Salt Lake as “beneficial use” and allows water rights to be purchased or leased on behalf of the lake and donated to four state organizations. The Legislature allocated $40 million to the Utah Department of Natural Resources to acquire and hold those water rights in the Great Salt Lake Watershed Trust.
Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake coordinator with the Utah Department of Natural Resources, hopes the trust can get a financial match to put $80 million toward more upstream water rights purchases. “It’s not the final solution but a good start,” she says.
FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake’s de Freitas hopes that farmers might opt to lease their rights and skip, say, a third cutting of alfalfa. But most agree the $40 million might not buy very much. Water rights are bought and sold just like real estate, and right now, it’s a hot seller’s market. While the state can’t dole out new water rights, there’s an online marketplace to buy and sell them. In Cedar Valley and northern Utah, prices have hit $24,000 per acre-foot. Municipalities require developers to get water rights, and builders can pay a lot more for the water than a farmer ever could, says Mardell D. Topham, a water rights broker in Sandy, Utah.
Even individual homeowners building large mountain homes in the Wasatch Mountains are paying upwards of $50,000 for rights to a quarter of an acre-foot of water. “In the last couple of years, the prices have just skyrocketed—there is so much demand for growth,” Topham says. “This new law will help the lake, but I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem.”
There’s a cost to growth and development
Then there is the issue of large amounts of “secondary water” that fills canals in areas that once were home to agricultural land but now are covered in subdivisions. The canals are still there, but houses have been built around them.
A farmer can sell his land to a developer, but he cannot necessarily sell his shares in the canal company to that developer. Even as the number of active farms shrinks, canal companies limit how much water rights can be sold and to whom those shares go—usually it’s just other canal company shareholders. With no crops to irrigate, these canal companies continue to divert water from the rivers and sell flood irrigation to neighborhoods for a pretty cheap price, maybe $200 a year per resident.
“They’re diverting hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water,” Frankel says. “The state should be buying those canal companies and putting all that water into the lake permanently.”
When people see how much water they’re actually using, they tend to use less, Frankel says. So his group, the Utah Rivers Council, lobbied lawmakers to install water meters for those secondary water uses. State Sen. Jacob Anderegg tried and failed to pass a bill three times before lawmakers finally required secondary water connections to have use meters. But they don’t have to be installed until 2030, and a number of counties with smaller populations were exempt.
Besides, those developments love their green lawns. Despite living in the worst drought in 1,200 years, culture has made water conservation efforts politically unpopular. In fact, homeowners’ associations (HOAs) and cities have fined citizens who want to rip out their water-hungry lawns and swap them out for low-water xeriscape yards. City officials, preparing for huge population growth, continue to divert upstream water and store it underground for the future.
And for two decades, Utah lawmakers failed to act on efforts to impose water conservation measures and update water laws to protect the lake. Only this year did the statehouse finally wake up to the frightening reality of what the Great Salt Lake drying up will mean for human health and ecosystems around the globe. Utah policymakers dubbed the 2022 legislative session the “year of water,” signing into law more than 15 measures related to water conservation.
One of those measures, House Bill 95 prohibits HOAs and cities from requiring grass for property owners. House Bill 33 allows organizations or individuals to donate or sell their water rights to go to the Great Salt Lake. “I give them credit,” Perry says. “They made probably the most comprehensive water rights and law changes that have happened in the history of the state of Utah.”
But water experts say it’s still not enough to save the lake.
As Utah continues to absorb a huge influx of new residents—the population is expected to grow by 2.2 million by 2060—it puts pressure on municipalities to plan for the future. As a result, municipalities are siphoning upstream water, pumping it underground into the aquifer to support and sustain the aquifer level, and perhaps storing it for future drought days and bigger populations. Underground storage is typically considered better than reservoirs, which can lose water due to evaporation. And for some communities, the groundwater has dried up and the ground is beginning to buckle. “This aquifer storage and recharge is something we can do more of,” Ferry says.
Environmentalists, however, argue that cities should divert that unused water to the lake rather than pumping it underground for the future. Cities, Frankel says, would have enough water if people and businesses simply used less water.
We need to use less water
There may be the beginnings of a shift. In June, the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints, which has historically been a large consumer of water, announced plans to cut water usage at its meetinghouses, temples, and other church-owned properties. In some cases, it will let lawns go brown. Earlier this summer, one of the state’s largest water suppliers, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, asked residents to cut water consumption by 10 percent.
Frankel says it’s hard not to be jaded after years of lawmakers rejecting efforts to conserve water and save the lake. He says there’s too much political posturing happening now when something should have been done a decade ago, and there is still so much more to be done. “The laws still need to change to protect the lake, not just protect it temporarily,” he says.
Perry, the atmospheric scientist who is now studying other lake beds across the nation, hopes that Utah will learn from history. He points to Owens Valley in California. In the 1920s, water was diverted to Los Angeles, and the lake dried up. When wind gusts of 60 miles per hour stirred up dense clouds of cancer-causing dust and salt, it terrorized residents.
Although the lake was just a twelfth the size of the Great Salt Lake, it’s been the biggest dust source in North America for the past 100 years. Los Angeles spent more than $2 billion trying to mitigate the dust without putting water into the lakebed. They tried snow fences, plowing, drip irrigation systems, and gravel.
“Really the only way to deal with it effectively is to focus on trying to put water back in the lake,” Perry says, “which is where we need to go anyway for the long-term health of the system and ourselves. So Utah can do it now, voluntarily. Or we can do it looking down the barrel from the EPA in five to 10 years. But it needs to happen.”
If not, Utah could become a toxic wasteland—and its cities could become ghost towns.