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Former Utah governor asks, could water in Utah Lake help fill the Great Salt Lake?

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Former Utah governor asks, could water in Utah Lake help fill the Great Salt Lake?

Jan 31, 2024 | 8:02 am ET
By Kyle Dunphey
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Former Utah governor asks, could water in Utah Lake help fill the Great Salt Lake?
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Park visitors walk by a rock formation on the banks of the Great Salt Lake at the Great Salt Lake State Park on August 02, 2021 near Magna, Utah. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Could water in Utah Lake help return the Great Salt Lake to a healthy level?

That’s the question posed by former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who wants lawmakers to fund a study exploring ways the shallow freshwater lake could help in the state’s effort to replenish its salty neighbor to the north and avoid an environmental and public health catastrophe. 

“What if we ended up minimizing evaporation in Utah Lake? That water would normally become a gas or a vapor — rather than that, the water would stay liquid and end up going down the Jordan River,” Herbert told Utah News Dispatch on Tuesday. 

On Tuesday, Utah Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, expressed his intention to open a bill file that would fund the study. Bramble described the effort as a blank slate, telling reporters “we want it to be a defensible study that’s not biased or based on special interest objectives.” 

He’s eying about $2 million for the study, but couldn’t say Tuesday where that money would come from. Bramble also said the study could take about one year. 

“We want the results of it as soon as possible,” Bramble said. “The problems with the Great Salt Lake aren’t going away. And who knows what the rest of the winter is going to do in terms of snowfall and water content in the mountains … this is a critical issue statewide.” 

The study has support from Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who echoed Bramble. “It sounds like a good idea,” Adams said. 

Herbert said by some engineering estimates, reducing evaporation could help convey as much as 90,000 acre-feet of water each year through the Jordan River, which connects the two lakes. Those are rough figures, Herbert said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not … but if we put that kind of water back into the Great Salt Lake, we have a chance of recovering and fixing some of the problems that we see.” 

Currently, the Great Salt Lake is at about 4,192 feet above sea level, below its historic average of around 4,196 to 4,200 feet, according to state data. Lake levels have been declining for years, exposing toxic, arsenic-laden dust that pollutes the air and can cause a number of diseases and health complications. 

The lake has three main sources of water: the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers. The Jordan River begins at the north end of Utah Lake in Saratoga Springs, and winds through Salt Lake County before it empties into the Great Salt Lake in Farmington Bay. Some stretches of the river are considered impaired, which means they don’t meet the state’s water quality standards.

Herbert was reticent to say what exactly the study should explore — that’s up to the scientists and engineers, he said. But exploring ways to curb the water lost to evaporation has been discussed for years. 

That could include what he called “strategic dredging” on parts of Utah Lake, or building dams or causeways on the Great Salt Lake to prioritize filling certain sections, like Farmington Bay. 

“Maybe we need to reshape a little bit of the Great Salt Lake … but that’s what the study is going to tell us,” Herbert said. “I want to approach it — and I think everybody else should — with an open mind and an unbiased attitude. Let’s see what the science tells us, get input from all parties and see if we can find a practical solution.” 

Utah Lake has seen its fair share of controversy in recent years. Over the summer, an ambitious project to dredge the lake bed and create some 18,000 acres of man-made islands fell apart after the company behind it dissolved. Debate around the project was full of contention, with environmental groups and lawmakers concerned it would both hamper ongoing conservation efforts and harm the lake’s health. 

Lake Restoration Solutions, the company behind the proposal, even sued one of its most vocal critics, BYU professor Ben Abbott. The lawsuit was later thrown out. 

Abbott, a professor of aquatic ecology, said he supports a study as long as it doesn’t focus on “re-engineering the lake” like he says Lake Restoration Solutions intended to.  

“It could be helpful if integrated into existing efforts. Otherwise, it could create confusion or become political,” he said. 

Herbert said the state would take the lead on the study, “not private developers.” But he wants everyone at the table. 

That includes environmental groups, developers, water users, farmers and representatives from all kinds of industry.

“I don’t think that everybody’s going to be satisfied when it’s all said and done,” Herbert said. “But I think you can build a consensus.”