Land & Environment

Strike Team: No Single Solution Will Cure Great Salt Lake

Experts synthesize data and insights needed to help decision-makers return lake to healthy levels.

Bison graze on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake in April 2023. (Photo Credit: Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air)

SALT LAKE CITY — The Great Salt Lake Strike Team, which brings together the technical expertise of Utah state government agencies and research universities, shared data and insights to help decision-makers during the 2024 General Legislative Session on Wednesday. The new report, “Great Salt Lake Data and Insights Summary,” makes clear that no single solution will cure the lake, data and modeling investments will make a significant difference, and shepherding conserved water to the lake are all critical to Utah’s success.

“Restoring Great Salt Lake to health will not be a one-year, one-policy, one-constituency solution,” said Brian Steed, who co-chairs the strike team and serves as Great Salt Lake Commissioner. “Rather, a coordinated, data-driven approach will be necessary so decision-makers can evaluate tradeoffs and balance competing interests. The Strike Team makes this possible by providing authoritative, accurate and current information about the lake’s past, present and potential future.”

The report provides a summary of the 2023 water year and shares data and insights about reservoir storage, salinity, temperature, precipitation, streamflow and natural flow, runoff efficiency, human water use, mineral extraction, future water availability, and conservation planning. Among the most interesting findings are the following:

  • Impact of the 2023 water year — The 2023 water year contributed a significant amount of water to the Great Salt Lake Basin. Paired with emergency measures like raising the adaptive management berm, the daily elevation of the south arm of the lake rose 5.5 feet. Evaporation reduced 2023 water gains by 2 feet, resulting in a net elevation increase of 3.5 feet.
  • Reservoir storage and salinity — Utah reservoirs gained the highest volume ever recorded following the 2023 water year. Salinity levels in the south arm returned to a healthy range because of relatively high inflows and the raising of the berm that connects the north and south arms of the lake.
  • Runoff efficiency — A significant portion of the 2023 snowpack recharged groundwater storage. Utah enters 2024 with much higher groundwater levels, so runoff efficiency is expected to be much higher this year, which will benefit streamflow.
  • Human water use — Human water use, while variable in the past 30 years, has remained relatively constant. Warmer and drier years tend to increase depletions.
  • Mineral extraction — Water depletion from mineral extraction peaked in 2007 and has declined slightly since.
  • Future water availability — Over the long term, expected increases in precipitation will be overwhelmed by rising temperature and evaporation, creating further challenges for the lake.
  • Conservation planning With recognition of streamflow variability, the strike team made estimates of inflow requirements for a variety of conservation scenarios. This information sets the stage for data-driven conservation strategies.

“Decision-makers must balance human, ecological, and economic health as they take actions to improve water management, mitigate adverse impacts, and increase water deliveries to the lake,” said Bill Anderegg, who co-chairs the strike team and serves as director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy at the University of Utah. “This report makes clear the challenges Utah faces, but also demonstrates the value of working together, in a data-informed way, to ensure the health and sustainability of Great Salt Lake.”

The report emphasizes that water conservation efforts will be ineffective for the Great Salt Lake if conserved water fails to reach it. The report authors underscore the importance of what’s known as “water shepherding” that ensures water conserved within the Great Salt Lake Basin flows to Great Salt Lake. The Strike Team notes the shepherding process requires investment in accurate measurement, robust accounting models, and other actions so depletions can be accurately quantified.

“The Strike Team’s work once again provides bedrock data for understanding lake levels, water flows, and conservation needs,” said Joel Ferry, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “I firmly believe Utah can set a new standard for the healthy recovery of a terminal lake, but it will require a significant amount of collaboration, innovative policymaking and long-term commitment. I’m optimistic we can get this done.”


Download PDF

CONTACT

Anna McEntire
Office of Research
Executive Director of Research Communications
(435) 797-7631
anna.mcentire@usu.edu

Nick Thiriot
Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute
801-842-9150
nick.thiriot@utah.edu


TOPICS

Research 859stories Environment 259stories Water 252stories Solutions 62stories Partnerships 53stories Great Salt Lake 34stories

Comments and questions regarding this article may be directed to the contact person listed on this page.

Next Story in Land & Environment

See Also