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

SALT LAKE CITY – Scientists will be awarded $25 million to study salt lake ecosystems in the drought-stricken western US as President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed legislation 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 Flats shrunk to the 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. condition legislature and local water district officials have pledged to fund and incentivize conservation efforts, but development, population growth, and continued agricultural demand continue to strain the water supplies needed to sustain the lake.

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.

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 “climate 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.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Biden signs bill to study salt flats in drought-stricken US West

Sarah Y. Kim

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