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Peter Steele: Think bigger to save the Great Salt Lake

By Peter Steele | Special to The Tribune | Feb. 3, 2022, 11:00 a.m.

The Great Salt Lake is finally receiving the attention it needs. The speaker of the Utah House has held a summit to discuss saving the lake and, more recently, details of a proposed bill drafted by the Utah Rivers Council and sponsored by Rep. Douglas Sagers of Tooele. The proposed bill establishes additional fees on secondary water use in the Great Salt Lake watershed based on the water level in the lake. While it is laudable to use market principles to incentivize conservation, the target of this bill is simply too small to make the difference for the Great Salt Lake. The balance of the lake requires some 2.9 million acre-feet per year to flow in to match the water lost to evaporation. About two thirds of this comes from our rivers. The lake is currently at least four feet below its healthy average and each foot of depth will require something in the range of 1 million acre-feet of extra inflow, leading to a deficit of perhaps 4 million acre-feet or more. The Utah Rivers Council identifies the total secondary water use in the watershed as 183,000 acre-feet and hopes to conserve some percentage of that, although the efficacy of the proposed system is so far unknown. If we’re generous and assume that secondary water conservation could result in an additional 50,000 acre-feet reaching the lake per year (savings of 27% over current use), we find that returning to the minimum healthy level will require some 80 years. And this does not account for drought, where any conservation savings go to meet demand, or the effects of a changing climate that may reduce the overall amount of water available in our system. The proposed plan is wholly inadequate because it focuses on the little brother of water use, while ignoring the 800-pound farming gorilla. This is understandable. Agriculture holds a special place in the imagination of Utah residents and legislators and mandated cuts (or increased water costs) to producers are a non-starter. If we can’t mandate water savings, what can we do? It is time to think bigger, both for the Great Salt Lake and throughout the state. There are savings to be found in agriculture, through conversion to more efficient watering practices, piping canals and ditches to reduce seepage and evaporation, and through other means. However, cost is a major impediment, as borne out by responses to the Census on Agriculture from the USDA. Many smaller farmers simply cannot find hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert their systems to something more efficient or are unsure that they will be able to recoup the cost. At times, Utah looks at the water from the Bear River or the Colorado River with thirsty eyes, hoping to resolve our issues with more of the giant public works dams of the 20th century. What if we took that same level of investment and put it into agricultural conservation? Not loans that place a larger burden on the farmer but grants that enable them to flourish. State money could also leverage funding already available from federal sources such as the NRCS. As part of the program, the state could receive the rights for a portion of the water saved through conservation, allowing that water to flow down into the Great Salt Lake or Lake Powell, or the other reservoirs we depend on for our lives. In all, thousands of farms and hundreds of canals and ditches would be improved, allowing hundreds of thousands of additional acre-feet to flow into the Great Salt Lake while bolstering the ability of our farmers to continue producing the food we need through drought and climate change

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