SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) — The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is preparing to increase the height of a berm along the causeway at Great Salt Lake by five feet as directed by Governor Spencer Cox. In doing so, the berm will effectively act like a dam and separate the lake into two separate bodies of water. While this is temporary, some have concerns it will lead to relaxed water conservation efforts.   

Water levels at Great Salt Lake have already risen by more than a foot this winter. With all the snowpack across northern Utah, this trend is likely to continue through the spring. To take full advantage of all the water, Gov. Cox issued an executive order to raise the berm (which is part of the railroad causeway) by five feet “…in order to increase the overall depth and decrease the salinity of the south arm of the Great Salt Lake.”   

“It means we need to act quickly and right away” Ben Stireman stated. Stireman is the Sovereign Lands Program Administrator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. He explained that FFSL oversees the berm and is responsible for increasing its height. He said they could have the increase finished within a matter of days. When it’s completed, the berm will act as a dam sealing off the north arm of the lake from the south arm.  

“The goal is to just temporarily impound those flows, allow the fresh water that comes from all the main tributaries to dilute the salinity then, at an optimal time, we’ll release water to the north arm,” Stireman stated.  

Under the executive order, once the berm is up, the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Quality will create a berm management plan to guide future adjustments to berm height. This plan will be based on water and salinity levels in the south arm.

“We’re facing this existential threat as far as our life is concerned and it’s the moment to perform,” Ben Abbott told ABC4.  

You may have recently heard of a research project that found Great Salt Lake could disappear, as we know it, within the next five years. Ben Abbott (Assistant Professor of Ecosystem Ecology at Brigham Young University) played a key role in that study.   

Referring to the berm, Abbott posed the following: “It’s a trade-off right now where we’re saying, ‘Are we going to allow the entire lake to remain viable or are we going to further degrade and dry up that northern arm?’”  

He told ABC4 that raising the berm isn’t a bad idea. He added: “If this is accompanied by really aggressive water conservation measures, then I think this could be a reasonable, additional step to take.” However, he emphasized the need for state leaders to look for long-term solutions.  

“Establishing a minimum elevation target (for GSL water levels) should absolutely be a priority and also ensuring a required minimum flow (into the lake),” Abbott stated.  

Abbott said if the state keeps entertaining “pie-in-the-sky ideas,” the federal government may step in and take over.   

“The safest and most cost-efficient route is to conserve water,” Abbott said. “That’s the only option that doesn’t have a big trade off.”  

Stireman emphasized that the berm is temporary and is just one more “lever” they can pull to help save the lake. This cannot be a long-term solution as more lakebed would be exposed as the north arm continued to dry. An exposed lakebed may lead to toxic dust blowing into cities along the Wasatch Front.