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Winter 2023: The Future of the Energy Grid

Updating Utah Water Policies for Great Salt Lake

Marcelle F Shoop


  • Explores Utah’s Great Salt Lake and how it’s water levels have been trending downward for decades due to water diversions, drought, and climate change.
  • Demonstrates the environmental and ecological impacts of Great Salt Lake’s drought.
  • Analyzes tactics for preserving Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.
Updating Utah Water Policies for Great Salt Lake
Steve Proehl via Getty Images

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Great Salt Lake sits at the lowest point of a terminal watershed that extends more than 35,000 square miles across northern Utah, also dipping into regions of Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada. The iconic lake sustains a globally important ecosystem, essential community and social benefits, and more than a billion dollars in annual economic activity that includes brine shrimp harvesting, mineral extraction, and recreational activities such as hunting, bird watching, and boating. Great Salt Lake also plays a distinctive role in Utah’s water cycle by contributing to Wasatch Front snowpack with its lake-effect precipitation.

As part of a network of irreplaceable saline lake systems, Great Salt Lake and its complex of wetlands provide some of the most important habitat for millions of migratory birds in the Western Hemisphere, annually hosting some 10 million shorebirds, waterfowl, and other waterbirds. The numbers are so significant that each of the lake’s five bays is recognized as a globally Important Bird Area, critical to the international conservation of bird populations, while the lake is designated as a hemispherically important shorebird site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

In September 2022, water levels at Great Salt Lake fell to an elevation of 4,189.2 feet—a foot below the prior record low set in 2021. Water levels have been trending downward for decades due to water diversions, drought, and climate change. However, the intensity of the drought and extreme warm temperatures over the last two years have accelerated the drop in water levels, exposing vast areas of lakebed.

As demonstrated by other drying lakes around the globe, much is at stake and the detrimental consequences of extensive long-term water loss and increased salinity are immense. The potential costs of declining water levels at Great Salt Lake have been estimated at $1.69 billion to $2.17 billion annually—or as much as $25 billion to $32 billion over a 20-year period. Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, Assessment of Potential Costs of Declining Water Levels in Great Salt Lake (Nov. 2019). Particularly concerning are the potential ecosystem losses and the increased dust emissions from exposed lakebed that pose risks to public health and quality of life. The heightened potential for dust on snowpack that can cause snow to melt earlier and more rapidly is troubling as well.

The mega drought combined with increasing competition for water in one of the fastest-growing states in the nation makes solutions particularly challenging, while conversely furnishing the impetus for long-needed action. Those factors and a healthy budget led to many water policy and funding measures adopted by the Utah Legislature and signed into law by the Utah governor in late 2021 and early 2022. Those measures aim to address water declines and ecological concerns at Great Salt Lake, increase flexibility for water sharing, and guide statewide water conservation improvements.

This article highlights some of the strides intended to improve water levels at Great Salt Lake, starting with a basic tenet of Utah water rights law—that “[b]eneficial use shall be the basis, the measure and the limit of all rights to the use of water in this state.” Utah Code § 73-1-3. While wetlands managers around Great Salt Lake historically have held water rights for waterfowl and migratory bird production, it was less clear whether similar beneficial uses could support a water right in the open waters of Great Salt Lake. That question was addressed in 2021 when the Utah Division of Water Rights approved applications for two water transactions that allowed the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to place Jordan River water rights to beneficial use in the open unimpounded areas of the lake’s Farmington Bay. Rio Tinto Kennecott and Central Utah Water Conservancy District donated the water rights for a fixed time, in a partnership facilitated by National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission.

That step forward in recognizing beneficial water uses for Great Salt Lake was expanded by the 2022 instream flow changes. With support from agricultural producers, Utah’s instream flow law (Utah Code § 73-3-3) was amended to broaden the list of water right holders who can use water for wildlife purposes or natural aquatic environment preservation or enhancement. The changes create one of the most flexible tools in the West, allowing private parties to hold or lease their water for instream uses on a temporary or fixed time basis (up to 10 years), while also authorizing instream flow rights for sovereign lands, such as Great Salt Lake. In addition to the Division of Wildlife Resources and Division of State Parks, the law also authorizes the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, Utah’s sovereign lands manager, to hold instream water rights permanently. This is an important tool for use throughout the state and adds options for placing water to beneficial use at Great Salt Lake.

Policy makers also directed $50 million and targeted measures for Great Salt Lake, indicating these steps are only a start. The legislature appropriated $5 million to support an integrated Great Salt Lake watershed assessment led by the Division of Water Resources. Utah Code tit. 73, ch. 10g. The concept recognizes that ensuring adequate water flow to keep Great Salt Lake and its wetlands healthy requires an understanding of current and future water supply and demand within the Great Salt Lake watershed. Recommendations from the HCR10 Steering Group and Great Salt Lake Advisory Council encouraged closing data gaps and developing a comprehensive water budget analysis for the Great Salt Lake Watershed that incorporates the lake’s water needs into a water budget, along with the water needs for agriculture, human use, and the environment.

The legislature also adopted measures establishing the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program, providing $40 million for a water trust for the lake. Id. tit. 65, ch. 16. Supported by water policy changes made over the last few years, including water banking, fixed time and split season uses, and expanded instream flow provisions, the water trust can help fund projects and voluntary transactions to retain or enhance water flows to the lake. At least a quarter of the funds are dedicated to restore or protect wetlands and important hydrologic connections to benefit Great Salt Lake.

Another $5 million was dedicated for dredging the Great Salt Lake Marina for safety access and for actions to address increasing salinity levels in the lake’s South Arm (Gilbert Bay). During summer 2022, the state modified the breach in the railway causeway that separates the North and South Arms of the lake. The modification shuts off flow of hypersaline water from the North Arm (Gunnison Bay) into the South Arm to help keep the arm from reaching detrimentally high salinity levels that could place an entire food web and ecosystem at risk.

Brine shrimp, harvested from the South Arm, are marketed internationally as a food source for aquaculture (e.g., farm-raised shrimp), generating approximately $60 million in annual economic output. Salinity levels and nutrients are key factors in their reproductive success, with ideal salinity ranges between 12% and 16%, although they may tolerate higher ranges. Salinity levels have recently neared 18%, and effects on the species are being monitored.

The Utah Division of Wildlife manages the brine shrimp harvest to ensure the population can support a sustainable brine shrimp industry as well as the millions of eared grebes that come to Great Salt Lake during fall migration. From 50% to 95% of the North American eared grebe population visit the lake between July and November every year to molt their breeding plumage and feed on brine shrimp to replenish energy reserves. Those eared grebes are flightless and vulnerable until muscle mass rebuilds and the birds can continue their migration to wintering habitat.

Low water levels and high salinity concentrations also affect other components in the food chain. This includes brine flies as well as microbial mats found on calcified microbialite formations that feed brine shrimp and brine fly larvae. Brine flies, as well as their larvae or pupae, are primary food sources for certain bird species at Great Salt Lake, such as Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes, and some waterfowl species such as the common goldeneye.

Further complicating matters, mining companies extract magnesium and other minerals in the North and South Arms of Great Salt Lake, generating more than $1 billion in annual economic activity. While mineral operations are impacted by low water levels, proposed efforts to deepen diversion canals to maintain operations are raising questions about the effect on the lake’s water levels given current conditions.

The complex relationships among the lake’s uses in the face of increasing salinity and low water levels will lead to increased focus on solutions over the next year.

Recently adopted water conservation measures have statewide application, but can also benefit the lake. Computer modeling completed in 2019 examined a range of water demand and climate scenarios. The results suggest that increased water conservation in the agricultural, municipal, and industrial sectors could help mitigate effects of climate and hydrologic change to Great Salt Lake water levels.

For example, the legislature provided $70 million for agricultural water optimization to reduce agricultural water use and maintain or improve agriculture production and profitability, while creating opportunities for increased operational flexibility. Additional goals include measuring real-time water diversions and documenting water use and savings, as well as improving and protecting surface and groundwater quality.

A program to accelerate water metering for pressurized secondary water systems received $250 million in funding. There are an estimated 260,000 connections in Utah, the majority of which rely on unmetered secondary water for landscape and outdoor uses. Research has shown that even without additional fees, monthly reports explaining how much water a residence is using leads to reduced water consumption by 20% to 30% or more. Accompanying legislation requires secondary water providers to install meters for all preexisting pressurized secondary systems by January 1, 2030, building on existing secondary metering requirements for new service connections. Utah Code tit. 73, ch. 10.

The state also adopted a variety of water conservation measures. These include (i) requirements for municipalities and counties to incorporate water use and conservation as part of general planning by 2025; (ii) limitations on municipalities, counties, and homeowner associations from preventing property owners from installing water-wise landscaping, combined with $5 million for a turf removal incentive program; (iii) requirements for state-owned facilities to reduce outdoor landscaping water consumption by 25% by 2025; and (iv) updated code requirements for water-efficient fixtures in new construction.

The importance and urgency of preserving Great Salt Lake and its wetlands cannot be overstated. Many of the measures enacted to date will take time to implement and yield results. There is still much more to accomplish to change the trajectory of declining water levels at Great Salt Lake. Ultimately, transforming society’s water use and management within the limits of stressed water supplies, while accommodating the natural environment, is crucial for Utahn’s quality of life and the survival of an irreplaceable ecosystem.