SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The Great Salt Lake is a refuge for millions of migrating birds and home to numerous plants and animals. But this oasis in the high desert is shrinking rapidly, losing 11 feet of water since water levels were first recorded, according to researchers at Utah State University.

In contrast to the Great Salt Lake, Utah’s population is growing. A report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah shows the population of Utah will grow by about 2.2 million people, or 66%, by 2060. The rapid growth of the state, coupled with the worst drought the western United States has experienced in 1200 years, could lead Utah into a municipal water shortage, according to Bart Forsyth, the general manager of Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District.

“Naturally, we have to have a robust water supply to provide for economic growth, and we have a good economy in the state of Utah,” said Forsyth, “I know that our state leaders don’t want to see a future water shortage get in the way of economic growth.” 

Utah state legislators had foreseen this possible shortage decades ago and passed the Bear River Development Act in 1991.

“[The Bear River Development Act] directs and authorizes us to plan to use the Bear River water for the municipal and industrial needs for the area,” explained Candice Hasenyager, the Director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

 When fully developed, the project is expected to divert about 220,000 acre-feet of water out of the Bear River, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources website, some of that will return to the watershed as “return flows.” 

The need for the project was projected to begin in 2015 but due to updated technology and conservation efforts, the need was pushed out to 2040 or 2050. 

“We are looking at purchasing a right of way through a narrow stretch of the corridor to get ahead of development so we’re not having to go in, in 30 years, and work out homes or something like that. So we’re really trying to get ahead of development and purchase open land,” said Hasenyager. 

But Zach Frankel, the Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council is concerned about what taking water out of the Bear River could mean for the Great Salt Lake.

“The Bear River provides 60 to 65% of the Great Salt Lake’s surface water on an annual basis. It’s the single greatest source of water for the lake,” said Frankel. 

Dr. Kevin Perry is an atmospheric scientist and associate professor at the University of Utah.

He said even without the Bear River Project, the state of the Great Salt Lake has changed dramatically since the legislation was passed. And the drought isn’t the only thing to blame.

“There was a study done at Utah State University that shows that two-thirds [of the water lost from the Great Salt Lake] has been to excessive water diversion, and one-third has been due to our current drought,” he explained, “as the lake starts shrinking, it exposes more and more lakebed. Every single measurement I took of soil samples from the bed of the Great Salt Lake had high concentrations of arsenic.”

The dust from the exposed lakebed can blow into the air millions of residents breathe. 

 “Over time, if people are exposed to arsenic from the dust over decades, it will heighten the risk of lung cancer and other types of cancers associated with the respiratory system,” said Dr. Perry, who believes the project could put undue pressure on the Bear River. 

“Last year the Bear River stopped flowing into the Great Salt Lake from May all the way through September,” he said, “that just shows how stressed the Bear River system already is, and taking even more water will make those types of situations more common, where there will be no water flowing into the Great Salt Lake from the Bear River.” 

Both Hasenyager and Forsyth agree diverting water from the Bear River will impact the Great Salt Lake. 

“We’re really looking for, how do we grow and conserve the amount of water today, so that we can push off the need for bear river development in the future,” said Hasenyager. 

According to Forsyth, water diverted from the Bear River will be a relatively expensive source of municipal water and water costs will go up when the project is put into place. He said water conservation is the most cost-effective way to push the need for the project further into the future, but that conservation efforts may not be enough to meet the water needs of the Salt Lake Valley. 

“We don’t believe we can out-conserve the need for new water supplies in the future, although we need to do everything we can to conserve water before we start developing more water in the Great Salt Lake basin,” said Forsyth. 

Frankel agrees more measures should be taken to conserve water and believes water conservation can help protect the Bear River and the Great Salt Lake. He said there are alternatives to the Bear River Development project, including removing the property taxes subsidizing water costs in Utah, which would make people more aware of their excessive water use. 

“We could raise water rates for large institutional users that are using a million gallons or five million gallons every single month and lower our water demand,” said Frankel. “We could put water meters on all the water users tomorrow, which would lower water demand by 40% without even raising water rates to those users.”

Frankel believes implementing these measures could help taxpayers pay less in the long run, while preserving the Great Salt Lake for the next generation. 

“Anybody that breathes air has a lot at stake over the future of the Great Salt Lake. If you care about your air quality, you better pay attention to what’s happening to the Great Salt Lake and Bear River Development,” said Frankel.