Great Salt Lake and Other Shrinking Salt Lakes Receive $5 Million in Funding

Shrinking salt flats in the Great Basin, including the Great Salt Lake, will receive millions to aid in scientific assessment.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought conditions have left many shallow ponds dry as they lay dormant in hopes of being refilled for wading birds on Tuesday October 11 at Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake , 2022, near the new state penitentiary.

A bipartisan bill aimed at addressing the decline of western salt lakes, including the Great Salt Lake, passed the US Senate unanimously on Wednesday.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, presented Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act along with Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Roy Wyden of Oregon and co-sponsor ahead of Diane Feinstein of California.

The bill provides $5 million per year over five years for the US Geological Survey to survey salt lakes throughout the Great Basin. Major problems include the migratory birds that depend on salt lakes and threats to their water supplies, including “climate stressors”.

“With the Great Salt Lake currently at its lowest level on record,” Romney said in a press release Thursday, “we must do whatever is necessary to save it.”

A similar bill passed the US House of Representatives in July as part of a broader package to curb droughts and wildfires. This legislation also had broad bipartisan support, with MP Blake Moore serving as a sponsor and MPs Burgess Owens, Chris Stewart and John Curtis as co-sponsors. All are Utah Republicans.

“The Great Salt Lake and other western salt lakes are critical to our environment and industry,” Moore said in the release. “It is imperative that we take action to conserve these valuable resources, and I am grateful to the Senate for choosing to support this effort.”

If enacted, the bills will help fill in scientific gaps about salt lakes in the region that pose a risk to human health if they dry up. They also face potentially endangered species as their wildlife habitat shrinks. The Great Salt Lake alone serves as a nesting and resting place for more than 10 million migratory birds every year. It also supports multi-million dollar brine and mineral extraction ventures.

“This science-based legislation comes at such an important time — as we see lakes across the Great Basin drying up at an alarming rate,” said Marcelle Shoop, salt lakes program director for the National Audubon Society, which has lobbied for federal action to address the drying up of the region’s lakes.

The Great Salt Lake has hit record lows for two straight years and its ecosystem is on the brink of collapse. The bills list it as one of the most urgent lakes to study.

Owens and Mono Lakes in California are also named, whose water diversions have become sources of toxic and dangerous airborne dust. Lake Abert and Summer Lake in Oregon and Nevada’s Lahontan Wetlands, Ruby Lake and Walker Lake are also on the priority list.

Federal politicians and scientists are limited in what they can do to help the West’s vanishing salt flats because the water they so desperately need is largely managed by heads of state.

In Utah, lawmakers have taken important steps in recent months to address the decline of the Great Salt Lake.

They formed a $40 million trust earlier this year to improve the lake’s habitat and secure it more water, although details are still being worked out. They’ve also poured millions of federal funds into secondary water metering and optimizing agricultural water use. Governor Spencer Cox has also temporarily closed the Great Salt Lake watershed to new water rights, with some exceptions.

“This legislation could be key to ensuring the viability of the Great Salt Lake well into the future,” Cox said in the release.

But passage of the Salt Lakes Act is not entirely clear — the Senate and House versions differ slightly, so the bill will be sent back to the lower house for approval. A new congress is to be convened in January.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2022/12/01/we-must-do-whatever-is-necessary/ Great Salt Lake and Other Shrinking Salt Lakes Receive $5 Million in Funding

Justin Scacco

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