Sacramento, Springfield, Denver, Juneau. Out of the 50 state capitals, Salt Lake City is the only one named after some kind of natural feature. Fittingly so, for perhaps there is no closer reliance between nature and city than the Great Salt Lake and its metropolis. However, decreasing water levels threaten the survival of the lake and place a great strain on the city. Projects like the proposed Bear River Development could exacerbate this strain if not handled responsibly.
Economically, a depleted lake means losing a huge source of revenue. A 2012 report by Bioeconomics found the total economic output of the lake to be around $1.3 billion. That’s enough money to fund nearly all of Utah’s higher education programs for 2012, over 11 percent of the state’s total expenditures, according to a Utah State Legislature fiscal analysis. In addition, more than 7,700 jobs were created around lake-based industries such as aquaculture (raising and harvesting of aquatic plants and animals) and recreation. No matter how impressive the numbers are, they still are just numbers, and, outside of a few overzealous math professors and a handful of calculator-loving economists, they’re about as exciting as the crust of a cherry pie.
To really get into the sweet, syrupy cherries at the center and understand the true significance of the lake, we have to come to a rather stark and sad realization. The Great Salt Lake is the last great wetland ecosystem in the Western United States. Its two main companions, the Colorado River Delta in Colorado and Bay Delta in California, have been depleted to the point of near decimation by droughts and water diversion projects.
What this means is that Salt Lake City’s namesake feature has become a critical ecosystem to not just the thousands of animal and plant species that call it home, but to the biodiversity of the Western U.S. as well. According to Paul Keddy, coauthor of the Wet and Wonderful article in BioScience journal, wetlands provide functions like “carbon storage, flood control, [and] maintenance of biodiversity” that are all critical to the survival of surrounding ecosystems and populations. Keddy also claims that size does matter, citing how “most wetland services increase with area,” meaning that the larger a wetland is, the better it is at its job.
Being the last and largest wetland in this half of the country, the Great Salt Lake’s importance is compounded. Imagine roadtripping from border to border, Canada to Mexico, and only having one place to rest, eat, and get gas. The journey would be enormously difficult, if possible. Now imagine how many people would also be stopping at this oasis and how crowded it would be. This is what the ten million migratory birds that rest here are forced to do year after year.
Throw on top that this lone stop also provides homes, cleans the air, reduces the effects of global warming, refills water supplies, creates industry, and provides ample recreational opportunities and we finally have an analogy comparable to the Great Salt Lake.
If there were such a place this critical to human life, it would doubtlessly be expanded and protected. However, the opposite has happened to our real life refuge. Water diversion projects have drained the lake, lowering its level significantly, and proposed projects, like the Bear River Development, could threaten water levels even more.
Some groups have been resisting the proposed project, such as the Utah Rivers Council. Conservation director Nick Schou asserts that diverting water from the Bear River, the lake’s largest tributary, will “create a cascade of tragic impacts upon all Utahns and the Great Salt Lake.” He cites the destruction of rare wetland habitat, displacement of millions of migratory birds, worsening air quality as a result of increased sediment exposure, and the effect on lake-reliant industries (like minerals and brine shrimp) as a few examples of these tragic impacts.
Utah State University’s white paper on the impact of water development projects on the Great Salt Lake found that we have been pulling out water for a while now. They conclude that “consumptive water use has reduced net river inflow to the lake by 39 percent over the past 150 years.” This is a complicated way of saying that almost since people settled in Utah, we have been lowering the water level through water diversion projects. The same study found that the total water loss adds up to 11 feet. That’s a reduction in volume of 48 percent, most of which is our intentional doing. If not handled more responsibly, there might not be much of a lake left to pull water from.
A looming test of our ability to do this is the aforementioned Bear River Development Project. This project proposes to divert anywhere from 220,000 to 250,000 acre feet of water from the Bear River for residential use along the Wasatch front, where estimates project the population to grow to as much as six million by 2060. A single acre foot is equivalent to roughly 325,000 gallons. If completed, this project could lower the level of the Great Salt Lake anywhere from eight inches to four feet, no small amount for a 1,700 square-mile lake.
Even these relatively small changes could have significant ecological consequences. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Utah Rivers Council, nearly 10 million migratory birds from over 200 species use the lake as a refuge on their cross-continent flights. Decreasing the available habitat will significantly hamper, if not endanger, a large portion of these populations. A smaller, more concentrated lake also means a saltier lake, which can affect the multimillion dollar brine shrimp industry centered there.
The Utah Rivers Council would like to see the Bear River Project axed completely. They say the “devastating environmental impacts” are unjustifiable.
Marisa Egbert, project manager for the Bear River Development Project, says that her division will continue to “track the demands of a growing population and push for water conservation to delay the need for the [Bear River Project].” Nevertheless, Egbert says that completely ruling out the project is something “Utah does not have the luxury of,” referring to the fact that Utah is more or less one big desert.
The city has heard and considered alternative solutions proposed by the Rivers Council, like the utilization of surplus agricultural water and removal of tax subsidies for wasteful water practices. Egbert says that this is a “complex issue” that requires “multifaceted solutions,” however she emphasizes the need for “balanced solutions,” or ones that will try to be fair to all parties.
Any time water is removed from the Great Salt Lake or diverted away from it, environmental harm will follow. What’s critical is minimizing the amount of harm done to our already sick neighbor. If poorly implemented, Schou says the project could be “the nail in the coffin” of the lake. However, if conservative and creative solutions are applied, the impact could be minimal, while the benefits substantial.
With such a unique and important environment’s well-being resting in our hands, no corners should be cut or efforts spared to ensure we maintain its welfare. Failing to do so will result in nothing more than a couple extra miles of salt flat and a city named after the very thing it could not save.
Photo Credit: Chris Hammock