The ecological impacts of a dried-up Salt Lake would be unimaginable, but before that can happen, one mining company has stepped up to make a difference by directing water to the shrinking lake.
“Great Salt Lake is dynamic,” said Max Malmquist, engagement manager of the Audubon Saline Lakes Program. “The levels change season to season and from year to year, but if you look at the last 150 years, it has been on a declining trend in the recent decades due to drought, climate change and growing population here along the Wasatch Front.”
Wildlife is the first to notice a change in the environment, according to the Division of Wildlife Resources and The Audubon Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats. The drought has caused a significant impact on the wildlife habitats at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, which connects to the Great Salt Lake.
Kennecott Utah Copper, a mining company based in South Jordan and owned by Rio Tinto, has been operating the Bingham Canyon Mine since 1903. Before Utah addressed the needs of the Great Salt Lake earlier this year in its general legislative session, Kennecott was one step ahead and realized changes in their operations could bring more water into Farmington Bay and subsequently the lake.
This is a very unique partnership between six partners: the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Rio Tinto Kennecott, Central Utah Water Conservancy District, The Nature Conservancy, the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission and the National Audubon Society.
“The evolution of the mining industry from the old view and the stereotype of it being a dirty industry is absolutely changing,” said Nate Foster, interim managing director of Kennecott. “We’re very happy to be playing what we view as a leading part within that sustainable transition.”
Foster said Kennecott has the right to divert water resources from the Jordan River for their mining processes in Copperton, Daybreak and Magna. When they realized they don’t need it anymore, the company decided to make some changes to their water rights and direct the critical resource to Farmington Bay instead. The agreement of voluntary water sharing was approved in 2021 and will last for 10 years.
Kennecott is sending about 325,851 gallons of water to Farmington Bay right now. The volume is enough to cover the size of a football field in one foot of water.
“[The] role we play in the community is so important,” said Ted Balling, senior advisor of water resources at Rio Tinto. “The proximity of our operations to a very large community center — that’s pretty unique within the mining industry.”
Kennecott built a canal system for their mining processes which pumps water to Copperton, Daybreak and Magna. After their intent to donate water was approved, the company now directs the flow down the Jordan River, where it will eventually go to Gilbert Bay or Farmington Bay instead of the canals.
“We really wanted it to go to Farmington Bay because that would probably be the best beneficial use for the wildlife habitat,” Balling said.
Unfortunately, the drought conditions of the Great Salt Lake won’t be resolved even after receiving water donations of such magnitude.
“There is no silver bullet,” said John Luft, a program manager at the Division of Wildlife Resources. “There is no one lever you can pull that will fix the situation with the Great Salt Lake.”
Since the water donation of Kennecott, the state legislature has passed a bill to establish a trust to enhance and maintain the Great Salt Lake. It will be managed by the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. One of their many goals is to find more water from other rights holders who are willing to follow Kennetecott’s example.
In the past year, the Utah Legislature has proposed several bills to provide assistance and frameworks to help bring the lake back.
On Nov. 3, Gov. Spencer Cox issued a proclamation to close the Great Salt Lake Basin to new water appropriations in the wake of declining water levels. The state engineer will evaluate the conditions of the lake before November 1, 2023, and place a recommendation with state leaders on whether the proclamation should remain in effect.
This suspension allowed some of the conservation measures proposed during the 2022 legislative session to be implemented. Lawmakers passed a bill to invest $40 million to restore the Great Salt Lake by developing strategies to deal with a fluctuating lake level. Another bill required the Division of Water Resources to assess and predict the current and future water supply of the Great Salt Lake available for agricultural and economic development.