Saving Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake can be saved. This is how we do it.
Decisions to bring more water to the Great Salt Lake need to be based on the best available science and data. That’s why last fall, at the request of our university presidents and Utah’s policymakers, we launched a new kind of partnership called the Great Salt Lake Strike Team.
This team is a joint effort between Utah’s research universities — the University of Utah and Utah State University — and state agencies. Our goal is to provide data and answers to key questions needed for saving the Great Salt Lake. The effort aims to be impartial, data-driven and rapid.
On Feb. 8, we’re sharing our key findings in a policy assessment report. We’re focused on answering crucial questions. How did we get here? What are our options going forward?
Our report’s key findings are both stark and hopeful. The lake is currently sliding toward catastrophe. While a long-term drought and climate warming are exacerbating the stress, human water use is the largest driver of low lake levels. Fortunately, we have many policy levers that can help return the lake to healthy levels.
The report provides a policy assessment and “scorecards” for some of the most-discussed options for bringing more water to the lake. We’ve synthesized the benefits, costs and trade-offs of these options. Also important, our report provides science-based scenarios for refilling the lake to certain target levels and the additional water required for each scenario.
While we do not advocate for any specific policies, we have four concrete recommendations that will help clarify and guide efforts to save the lake:
First, the state should set a target lake level range, based on the matrix developed by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands and a timeline to reach that lake level. Once a target and timeline have been set, annual evaluations of progress and recalibrations will be important.
Second, wet years will be crucial to helping refill the lake. Wet years — like 2023 is turning out to be — are the time to increase conservation and ensure that conserved water makes it to the lake.
Finally, further in-depth policy analyses can guide specific actions. Research on existing and potential policies, building on expertise around the state and our strike team, will be important for informing data-driven decisions in the next few years.
This “strike team” partnership has been incredibly productive. It represents the land-grant and flagship universities working together, collaborating with state agencies, to serve our great state. It leverages our complementary strengths in water modeling, water policy, climate, hydrology and air quality.
We firmly believe the Great Salt Lake can be saved. Refilling the lake to levels that ensure Utahns’ health and prosperity will require state leadership, research university technical expertise, and individual and collective action.
The next several years are a crucial window to turn the tide, though success requires us to remember that this is a marathon and not just a sprint. As a state, we have the know-how, science, innovation, problem-solving spirit and leadership to rise to the challenge.
William Anderegg is the director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy and an associate professor of biology at the University of Utah. His research focuses on water resources, drought, climate change and forests.
Brian Steed is the executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air at Utah State University. He’s previously overseen the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.