The Utah Rivers Council has released a 12-part plan to bring the struggling Great Salt Lake back to a sustainable elevation.
The nonprofit unveiled the 4,200 Project Wednesday, which outlines several policy changes to bring the lake to an elevation of 4,200 feet above sea level. This “Goldilocks zone” means the lake’s dust hot spots are covered. Islands become islands again. Salinity levels are optimal for supporting brine shrimp, brine flies, and the millions of migrating shorebirds and waterfowl that depend on them. But it’s going to take a lot of time and water to get there — the Great Salt Lake currently sits at 4,192 feet in the south half and 4,189 feet in the north.
The Great Salt Lake’s current record low, set last November, is 4,188.5 feet.
“The clock has started ticking to the new record low for the Great Salt Lake,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, in an interview. “[It’s] anybody’s guess when that’s going to happen, but our assumption is that that’s going to be in 2024.”
The lake needs about 8 million acre-feet to fill to a healthy level, about four times the amount of water diverted by farmers and cities in the Great Salt Lake Basin each year, Frankel said. With concerted effort and tougher regulations, however, Frankel forecasts the lake can reverse its decline and reach 4,200 in 20 years.
“One would not have to convince me that we should repay it in the soonest possible time-frame,” Frankel said. “But what we’re concerned about is the lack of specificity in what we’re being offered in terms of leadership by the state of Utah … we’re not seeing anything near the total water that’s needed to repay the debt in the Great Salt Lake.”
Policy proposals for the project include setting a mandated elevation for the lake, allowing water right holders to permanently dedicate water to the lake themselves, instead of relying on state agencies subject to political pressure, and sending the extra water when farmland gets converted to urban use to the lake.
The project also calls for reforms to Utah’s Agricultural Water Optimization Program, which uses public funds to help private landowners upgrade their irrigation infrastructure. The farmers can then dedicate the conserved water to environmental and public benefit uses like the Great Salt Lake, but there’s currently no requirement for them to do so — they could sell it to cities or developers instead. Utah Rivers Council argues the state should receive a share of that water that’s proportional to the public investment.
Other suggestions call for pricing structures that discourage wasteful outdoor water, canceling plans to build new dams and reservoirs on the Bear River, ending property taxes that subsidize water district, boosting the amount of money available to buy water rights for the lake, banning ornamental turf, fixing leaky pipes and pushing cities to set more aggressive conservation goals.
Frankel said his staff will lobby state lawmakers this coming session to adopt the policies in The 4,200 Project. Last session, they worked with Sen. Nate Blouin on a resolution that would have set a nonbinding target elevation of 4,198 for the lake. That bill failed to make it out of committee. Utah Rivers Council is also part of a lawsuit against the state that’s attempting to use the public trust doctrine to save the Great Salt Lake, a strategy that successfully prevented the City of Los Angeles from draining Mono Lake in California.
Lawmakers have called the litigation unhelpful and “uninformed.”
Still, Frankel said he felt the Legislature would be receptive to Utah River Council’s policy proposals.
“There’s actually a number of legislators,” he said, “who are concerned that the state of Utah is not making sufficient progress in implementing the needed changes to raise Great Salt Lake water levels.”
Read the full project proposal below.