Rising to the Challenge: Utah's Innovative Approach to Revitalizing the Great Salt Lake

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Posted: April 21, 2024

Rising to the Challenge: Utah's Innovative Approach to Revitalizing the Great Salt Lake

"As Utah faces the complex challenges of the Great Salt Lake, the collaborative efforts of the Great Salt Lake Strike Team highlight the state's commitment to innovative and sustainable water management. This year marks a pivotal point in balancing environmental stewardship with the lake's ecological and economic health."

The Great Salt Lake Basin, featuring a terminal lake where water flows in but does not flow out and instead evaporates, experienced a transformative 2023 water year, a period used by hydrologists to track annual precipitation and water flow patterns from October 1st to September 30th. This year was particularly impactful for environmental and resource management in Utah. Contributing to this transformation was the Great Salt Lake Strike Team, a collaboration of researchers from Utah State University and the University of Utah, working alongside state agencies. This team was established in response to the critical challenges facing the lake, including declining water levels that threaten economic activity, public health, and ecosystems. The team's mission is twofold: to leverage the expertise of Utah's research universities and provide urgent research support to enhance Utah's strategies for improving watershed management and increasing water levels in the Great Salt Lake.

In 2023, the Great Salt Lake Basin received a significant amount of water, impacting the lake's ecosystem notably. Emergency measures, like the elevation of the adaptive management berm, led to the south arm of the lake rising by 5.5 feet. However, evaporation reduced these gains by 2 feet, resulting in a net elevation increase of 3.5 feet.

Utah's reservoirs recorded their highest-ever volume increase following this water year. The salinity levels in the south arm of the lake, crucial for its ecological balance, returned to healthier ranges due to the high inflows and the strategic raising of the berm, improving the connection between the lake's north and south arms.

The 2023 snowpack played a significant role in recharging groundwater storage, setting Utah up with higher groundwater levels for 2024. This increase is expected to boost runoff efficiency, benefiting the region's streamflow and overall water availability.

Human water usage in Utah has remained relatively constant over the past 30 years, with agriculture as the primary water consumer. Other sectors, including municipal and industrial use, managed wetlands, and mineral extraction, have seen increases, while evaporation from reservoirs has remained constant. Warmer and drier years tend to increase water depletions.

In the realm of mineral extraction, companies like Compass Minerals and U.S. Magnesium have historically contributed to significant water depletion. Although this peaked in 2007, there has been a slight decline since then, with mineral extraction accounting for 7.4% of total human water depletion.

Looking to the future, Utah faces the challenge of balancing increased precipitation with the consequences of rising temperatures and evaporation rates, complicating the long-term water availability for the lake.

To address this, Utah has implemented innovative water conservation strategies. Water shepherding has become crucial, ensuring that conserved water within the Great Salt Lake Basin effectively reaches the lake. This process requires accurate measurement, robust accounting models, and timely adjustments, enabling precise quantification of water depletions.

Furthermore, a strategic plan has been developed for restoring the Great Salt Lake to a healthy level. This involves maintaining the lake at an elevation of 4,198 feet, as recommended by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands' elevation matrix, which balances various competing interests.

The Strike Team's efforts emphasize that no single solution can fully resolve the lake's challenges. Continued investments in data, modeling, and efficient water shepherding are essential. As Utah prepares to host the 2034 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, there is an opportunity to set a new international standard for the healthy recovery of terminal lakes. This ambition reflects Utah's commitment to environmental stewardship and the importance of collaborative efforts in achieving sustainable water management.

Read the latest summary from the Great Salt Lake Strike Team.