Biden signs bill to study salt flats in drought-stricken US West

$25 million is funding studies of the Great Salt Lake and other salt lakes.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Angelic Lemmon, a park ranger with the Utah Department of Natural Resources, walks over reef-like structures called microbialites exposed by receding water at the Great Salt Lake near Salt Lake City September 28, 2022. Federal officials will monitor more closely the environmental, economic and health impacts of shrinking lakes across the drought-stricken West after President Joe Biden signed into law legislation passed by Congress on Tuesday, December 27, 2022, establishing and funding monitoring efforts in lakes including Utah Great Salt Lake, California’s Mono Lake and Oregon’s Lake Albert.

Scientists will be awarded $25 million to study salt lake ecosystems in the drought-stricken western US as President Joe Biden signed legislation on Tuesday allocating the funds amid unprecedented existential threats from water shortages.

The funding will enable the United States Geological Survey to study the hydrology of ecosystems in and around Utah’s Great Salt Lake, California’s Mono Lake, Oregon’s Lake Albert and other salt lakes.

Amid a decades-long drought, less snowmelt has flowed through the rivers that feed the lakes, causing shorelines to recede and lake levels to drop.

Falling lake levels endanger the people, animals and businesses that depend on the preservation of the ecosystem.

The lakes often serve as important habitats for migratory birds. Dust released by falling water levels can be blown into the air and have dangerous health effects on surrounding communities. And further depletion threatens the canals and infrastructure that a multi-million dollar mining industry needs to extract salts from the lakes.

In Utah, the Great Salt Lake shrank to its lowest point in recorded history, posing a threat to economic output, snow cover, public health and wildlife. Ski resorts worry about a future without lake effect snow. State legislatures and local water district officials have pledged to fund and provide incentives for conservation efforts, but development, population growth, and continued agricultural demand continue to strain the water supplies needed to sustain the lake.

[Read more: The Great Salt Lake’s ecological collapse has begun]

In eastern California, state officials have drastically restricted the amount Los Angeles can divert from the creeks and tributaries that feed Mono Lake in the eastern Sierras. For years, the sinking lake level has made the water saltier and endangered the habitats of birds, fish and artemia.

[Read more: Five things to know about Mono Lake — and how it compares to the Great Salt Lake]

The law, signed Tuesday, establishes what it calls a “Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Assessment and Monitoring Program” to study variables such as water use and demand, and “climatic stressors.”

Marcelle Shoop, program director for Saline Lakes at the Audubon Society, said in a statement the funding would complement existing conservation efforts. “The Great Salt Lake and the network of salt lake ecosystems in the arid west are facing very serious challenges with increasingly low water levels endangering local communities and millions of migratory birds,” she said.

Although the legislation’s supporters — senators and congressmen from across the West — praised the effort and said they hoped the studies would help find solutions, the program does not mandate conservation measures or introduce new guidelines for water management.

“These ecosystems need to be protected, but we cannot do that without adequate data,” Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, the sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

The bill adds $40 million that the Utah state legislature has allocated to the Great Salt Lake for watershed improvement programs this year and supplements $10 million in Army Corps of Engineers funding for the salt lakes that passed as part of a defense spending bill. Biden signs bill to study salt flats in drought-stricken US West

Justin Scacco

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