Historic funding for Utah’s Great Salt Lake will support water use reductions within agriculture and the urban landscape.
By Brian Fryer
The drought conditions affecting western states, along with increased water demands from a growing population and industrialized agriculture, have drained Utah’s Great Salt Lake to its lowest levels on record. A study conducted last year by a team of experts from Utah’s research universities, known as the Great Salt Lake Strike Team, concluded that if current conditions persist, and without interventions, the lake will disappear in five years.
The loss of the Great Salt Lake would have wide-ranging implications for the Great Basin region. More than 1.2 million people living near the lake would be exposed to blowing dust contaminated with naturally occurring and human-deposited toxins such as arsenic and mercury.
The lake and its wetlands also support a complex wildlife ecosystem and are a vital stopover for a multitude of migratory birds, as well as numerous industries that extract minerals and brine shrimp. The lake level is currently 4,190 feet above sea level, falling just short of the 4,200 feet needed to sustain wildlife, recreation, and lake-based industries.
In March, the Utah legislature allocated $427 million to efforts, including landscape-based strategies, aimed at reversing the lake’s trajectory, on top of another nearly half a billion dollars in state funds approved in 2022. Later that same month, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, announced it was permanently donating 5,700 shares from an agricultural irrigation company to the state, enabling an estimated 20,000 acre-feet of water—enough to cover a football field with 20 feet of water—to flow to the lake.
Ten million dollars of the new funding will pay for the establishment of a Great Salt Lake Commission and a commissioner to coordinate activities of the many entities that have an interest in preserving the lake, as well as develop a long-term plan for the lake. Another $200 million will go to optimizing agricultural water use—the biggest draw on the lake’s water resources—through the use of improved irrigation canals, pipelines, and more efficient irrigation systems. The optimization plan also allows agricultural users to lease their water rights temporarily without losing them.
“Offering incentives for farmers to conserve water and ensuring that water actually makes it to the lake is something the latest funding will do for us,” says Brian Steed, the executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air at Utah State University and a leader of the Great Salt Lake Strike Team.
Existing programs by cities and counties to encourage turf removal and low-water landscapes received $5 million in one-time funds and $3 million in ongoing funds. Brent Chamberlain, an associate professor at the College of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at Utah State University, contributed to an earlier report about the state of the Great Salt Lake. He says the challenge for landscape architects in the region is to show the aesthetic value of native landscapes to begin to shift perceptions among developers and residents.
“If we can create those spaces and demonstrate the benefits,” Chamberlain says, “then the performance metric is not just about how much water per plant; it’s that psychological change across the community to create the momentum we need to really address this problem.”