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Health, Science & Environment

Speaker Wilson's summit sounds a rallying cry to save the Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake
Emily Means
Gov. Spencer Cox presented his budget at Antelope Island in December. The declining lake levels are especially evident there.

The Great Salt Lake is in bad shape, roughed up by Utah’s historic drought and water diversions.

“The lake isn't dead,” said Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson, whose district includes the landmark. “It isn't even dying in the normal sense of the word. But it does face serious threats moving forward — threats that if we can't find meaningful ways to address them now will become a serious crisis over time.”

The time for action is now, Wilson said Wednesday at the Great Salt Lake Summit, where presenters laid out concerns about the possible impacts if the lake continues to dry up.

Scientists showed how dust storms due to exposed lake beds lead to dangerous air quality issues as well as snow that melts faster.

Brad Wilson Great Salt Lake Summit
Emily Means
House Speaker Brad Wilson, right, spoke with land and water use attorney Nathan Bracken at the Great Salt Lake Summit. They discussed possible policies for addressing the lake’s crisis.

There are also potential consequences to the state’s economy, with hits to the brine shrimp and mineral industries and recreation.

Even though the summit painted a bleak picture, Jaimi Butler, a Great Salt Lake researcher at Westminster College, was full of optimism.

“I don't want to look back and think about what could have happened,” Butler said. “I really want to look forward and think about what's going to happen now and how we can use creative solutions to save Great Salt Lake because there are huge consequences for not protecting the lake. I'm super hopeful that we get to make some action happen.”

State leaders have put a lot of focus on the lake recently. In December, Gov. Spencer Cox announced a proposal to put around $50 million of funding toward it.

Despite the urgency, Utah leaders still support projects that environmentalists say would harm the body of water.

For example, the state is moving forward with a project that would divert 220,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Bear River, the lake’s largest tributary. The Utah Division of Water Resources estimates that would lower lake levels 8-14 inches.

There’s also the inland port planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant. The Stop the Polluting Port Coalition and Center for Biological Diversity have warned for years about harmful impacts to the lake’s migratory birds and wetlands.

Deeda Seed, an organizer with the center, said those projects need to be part of the conversation.

“In order for the Great Salt Lake to survive, there can’t be any new diversions of Bear River water. It’s that simple,” Seed said. “Additionally, projects such as the proposed Utah Inland Port, and other intensive development proposed for fragile wetlands along the shores of Great Salt Lake, need to be curtailed.”

Wilson didn’t address those projects, but said he was committed to finding solutions.

“The Great Salt Lake isn't just the name of our capital city or the name of a lake,” he said. “It's absolutely part of the identity as to who we are as Utahns.”

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