SALT LAKE CITY — This past summer, water levels at the Great Salt Lake hit historic lows. Lows, that hadn’t been seen in roughly 170 years. In the fall, researchers from Weber State University sat down with ABC4 to discuss how a shrinking lake affects wildlife, Utah’s economy, and the health of residents along the Wasatch Front. Now, some lawmakers are introducing a bill they hope can improve the lake’s health and increase water levels.
It’s quiet at the northern end of the Great Salt Lake as a fresh blanket of snow covers the beaches and docks at Willard Bay State Park. This is where fresh water enters the lake and is one of the few places visitors will see a sheet of ice forming across the water. While the lake is calm during the winter, some lawmakers are looking to make a splash.
“The Great Salt Lake is in a crisis that is impacting all Utahns, the $1.3 billion economy, and 330 species of migratory birds coming from every country in the Americas,” Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zachary Frankel told reporters during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
Frankel explained that a new bill sponsored by Utah representative Douglas Sagers (R – District 21) aims to increase the lake’s water levels and improve the lake’s overall health. Sagers was busy Tuesday afternoon at the legislative session and could not make the press conference as planned.
The bill outlines different steps the state would take when the lake hit specific water levels based on the 10-year average. One of those steps includes fines for secondary water suppliers and property-tax-exempt institutions within the Great Salt Lake watershed. These fines would essentially be a water bill based on water usage of these institutions. Frankel explained that Utah has some of the most inexpensive water in the country. This is because a percentage of property tax in the state goes to water. That means exempt institutions are getting the lowered water price benefit brought on by property taxpayers.
“These fees go to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, and they can use that money to buy water rights,” Frankel explained. He said that the water would be purchased from voluntary sellers and then that water would then be sent to the lake.
Saving the lake could also save the health of many people. Researchers at Weber State University met with ABC4 in the fall to speak about the current state of the lake. Many of these researchers had already heard that the bill was being prepared and expressed their excitement for its eventual release. The researchers told ABC4 that there are many reasons to save the lake, but one of the biggest is climate change. They explained that as the water level continues to drop, communities along the Wasatch Front will see an increase in air pollution from toxic lakebed dust, and a decrease in rainfall and snowfall. This, they said, would only exacerbate the problems the lake is already facing.
According to Frankel, the Great Salt Lake Contingency Bill, and WSU researchers, there are many economical, health and environmental reasons that should get Utahns excited to have measures put in place to improve the lake’s health. However, there are also recreational reasons.
Nearly a year ago, sailboats were pulled from the docks and placed on dry ground. Water levels dropped too low for these bigger boats to be docked or launched at the Great Salt Lake State Park marina. “It is sad,” Park manager Dave Shearer told ABC4. Shearer is a sailor himself and lifelong GSL enthusiast. He encourages people to continue visiting the lake because there is still a lot to do.
However, he is sad to have seen water levels at their lowest point in more than a century. He continued, “It’s also the impact it’s had on the boating community out here. It’s a huge impact. We’ve lost a lot of members just because they’ve given up the fight or they’re taking their boats elsewhere.”
Frankel explained that Utah has some of the highest municipal water use in the country. Again, he stated, this is because property taxes keep water rates low. He said he believes if institutions pay for the water they use rather than the taxpayer paying for an “all you can eat buffet,” then it should make institutions more conscientious of their water use.
“This bill is the only framework being offered today to offer a substantive way to protect the future of the Great Salt Lake for everyone,” he added.
Institutions that could be charged for their water usage under the bill include universities and churches. Frankel said in 2019, the University of Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both testified and agreed that while they are exempt from property taxes, that should not exempt them from paying their share for water.
If passed, this bill would also prevent state properties from having non-functional turf which is grass that is used for curb appeal.