updated at 5 p.m. below:
8 a.m. SALT LAKE CITY — I’m at the annual Great Salt Lake Issues Forum in Salt Lake City — the conference is hosted by Friends of the Great Salt Lake to look at issues surrounding that massive puddle of salt water everyone likes to ignore if they don’t know anything about it.
I’ll be updating this as we go along, but an opening thought: That big dust storm on Wednesday? The dust was very likely a lot of stuff blown off the flats exposed by the receding Great Salt Lake. As the lake recedes from drought and more use of water taken out of streams feeding into it, more of those flats will be exposed which means even more and worse dust storms in the future.
What’s that dust? Brine Shrimp poop. Oh yeah, and mercury and other heavy metals. But, wow, poop?
first session starting ….
10:10 a.m — Very interesting first session — some things I never knew:
Predictions that taking 250,000 acre feet per year out of the Bear River will lower the Great Salt Lake by that amount aren’t really correct because not all of that water disappears. It goes through your house and out the sewer line again, or runs off from your lawn, or whatever.
The difference between diversion and depletion is rather large — Eric Klotz, Utah Division of Natural Resources, says that when you add in the fact that converting alfalfa fields to Home Depots actually increases the amount of water that runs off, by 2050 there will be a net increase of 20,000 acre feet to the Great Salt Lake along the Wasatch Front.
So, nothing to worry about? Not really. Several speakers looking at weather and global warming effects on the lake make the future of having enough water to run off in the first place very iffy, at best.
The scary thing is that all these experts can’t be sure. Craig Miller, UDWR, said “The lake, by nature, is confusing,” and proceeded to list half a dozen variables that they are just beginning to study.
Jim Steenburgh, chair of the U of U Department of Atmospheric Sciences, who led preparation of Gov. Jon Huntsman’s blue ribbon panel report on climate change, said Utah is on the dividing line between areas that climate change will cause more rain and where it will cause less, and said Utah needs to set up a basin-wide study system to look at all the variables involved.
noon — lunch break — The last two speakers were State Engineer Kent Jones and water rights attorney Steve Clyde, who gave very long detailed descriptions of water rights law in Utah which may be boiled down thusly:
– If you got here first, you got to claim water.
– If you got here second, you didn’t.
Water in Utah is allocated on that basis — and use of the water is as well. If your right is older than someone else’s you get to use your water, even in a drought when the other guy would really like you to share. Mr. Clyde made it clear that sharing is not part of Utah law and the very idea would be greeted with mirth, at best.
Both Clyde and Jones also made it clear that there are way more applications on file for use of Utah’s water than there is water, and before your new application can be considered all those old applications have to be gone through.
Bottom line — if you got it, you got it. If you don’t, good luck.
What all this means for Great Salt Lake is that, if anyone hopes for the idea of “extra” water to add to the lake’s level, they can hope all they want, but hope is all they’ll get.
Lot of dry discussion, but a few slient points:
Gary Belovsky, Notre Dame, has been studying the Great Salt Lake since 1994 when the method of counting shrimp was to toss a bucket off of a pier and count what it caught.
Since then he’s been studying nutrient levels, salinity levels, food chains and so on, trying to find a correlation between those things and how many shrimp the lake will produce, which affects both birds that feed AND the brine shrimp industry.
His conclusion: Lake levels do impact shrimp levels, but it’s not a straight line relationship — different levels of salinity cause different levels of different nutrients which can cause more, or less, shrimp, sometimes at high levels of the lake, sometimes at low. And there’s still much they don’t know.
One critical thing: GSL is the 4th largest terminal lake in the world, or used to be: The other three, over in Kazachstan, were all killed by bad management and water diversion by the former Soviet Union and are now ecological disaster areas. It would be very easy for the same thing to happen here, he said.
Jodi Gardberg, environmental scientist with the Department of Environmental Quality, reviewed the efforts to form a comprehensive management plan for the lake. The process has been slow, but there are 11 state agencies that manage various parts of the lake and another five federal agencies, and they don’t all even talk to each other.
This echos the call by Jim Steenburgh (see above) in his call for one unified effort to study the lake from a scientific point of view.
It is amazing how many of these people haven’t been talking to each other, but it is gratifying to see them standing around during the breaks, exchanging business cards, saying “We really need to get together.”
5 p.m. — A final thought from Clay Perschon, who lives in Davis County and summarized almost 16 years of managing the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Management program, which he also founded. When founding it he made the uncomfortable discovery that there was no research already done to base his own work on, so they started from scratch, back in 1994.
Much has been learned since then, he said, but much more needs to be done. That may be the theme of today’s discussions — the screaming ignorance they’ve discovered they all have about the lake.
But they need to study, because everything we do to the lake has an impact and “it is only careful analysis of those impacts that will allow us to do things and not cut our own throats.”