The state’s new czar, who oversees everything surrounding the Great Salt Lake, has work to do as an environmental time bomb continues to tick.
Last week, Gov. Spencer Cox hired Brian Steed to fill a new position as commissioner of the sea. If approved by the Senate, Steed will coordinate the many state agencies that oversee the Great Salt Lake’s water supply, water quality, wildlife and industry, while also formulating a strategic plan for how to prevent the lake from shrinking and it submit to lawmakers November.
That’s no small feat for a government employee, and Steed will also balance them with his current job as executive director of the Institute of Land, Sea and Air at Utah State University. The record-breaking snow cover may have given Steed some breathing room — it has already raised the lake’s height by more than a meter from its record low in November.
Still, Steed recognized the enormity of his task.
“It will be a challenge. I’m not going to lie about that,” he said Tuesday in an interview with members of the Great Salt Lake Collaborative. “But ultimately I think I’m optimistic that we can make a difference.”
Steed brings a wealth of Great Salt Lake experience to the job. For three years, he directed the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which houses many departments responsible for the lake’s health and operations. He is also co-leader of the Great Salt Lake Strike Team, which earlier this year presented a report on possible solutions to save the lake and an assessment of their cost and feasibility.
He shared his take on his new role and how he plans to keep the lake from collapsing again.
Even after a record-breaking winter, the Great Salt Lake is not clean
While Steed remains optimistic that good data and research can help lawmakers develop the best policies to keep the lake at sustainable levels, he is realistic about the current situation.
The record-breaking water year has helped, but many of the irrigation practices and other man-made challenges that nearly crashed the lake’s ecosystem remain.
“While we are all very encouraged by the past year,” Steed said, “we still have significant cause for concern.”
The lake has yet to rise at least 1.5 meters to reach a level where its dust-generating lake floor is covered and a protective crust can begin to form.
“We’re going to have dry years in the future,” Steed said. “…[And] When it comes to things like dust, we really haven’t covered up what needs to be covered up until we reach higher levels.”
Why aren’t world leaders trying to stem the dust that’s currently blowing off the lake?
Even after an impressive increase in elevation, the Great Salt Lake still has plenty of drying, exposed lake bed that continues to generate windblown dust. Dust is inherently unhealthy and triggers asthma attacks and inflammation. Long-term exposure to dust can also cause lung disease and cancer. The dust of the Great Salt Lake contains pollutants such as heavy metals and arsenic. The impact on the health of Wasatch Front residents remains unclear.
However, California regulators have found effective ways to control dust at Owens Lake, such as shallow flooding or covering the lake floor with gravel. So why aren’t Utah leaders doing the same for dust-raising Great Salt Lake hotspots?
“People made the political reckoning at Owens Lake that it’s not going to be a lake again,” Steed said. “I don’t think we made that political calculation for the Great Salt Lake.”
Pollution control efforts at Owens Lake have also been expensive. The city of Los Angeles, which dried the lake to dust after siphoning its tributary water to feed a growing population, has so far spent $2.5 billion on mitigation measures.
“We believe there is a cheaper way,” Steed said, “and that cheaper way right now is to divert more water into the Great Salt Lake.”
Agriculture and water leasing remain important political levers
Legislators revised Utah’s old water laws to allow water rights holders to donate or lease their existing property to environmental projects like the Great Salt Lake. So far, only two such agreements have been made. In 2021, Rio Tinto Kennecott announced it would donate 21,000 acre-feet to the lake annually over a 10-year period. And earlier this year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said it would make a permanent donation to the lake of a similar amount.
But in recent years, the lake has run into deficits of more than 1 million acre-feet (not counting this spring).
“While none of these (donations) will individually save the lake,” Steed said, “they certainly show us the way forward.”
Steed acknowledged that the idea of using state money to pay farmers and other water users to drain their farms has not met with much approval so far.
“And for good reason,” he said. “In some cases, that can have a huge economic cost.”
However, there have been a few limited cases on the Colorado River where a pilot program has successfully persuaded some irrigation operators to forego their water.
“The real key,” Steed said, “…is figuring out how we can make this work for both the farmers and the lake.”
Is it time to convince Utahns and other US consumers to give up beef?
The elephant in the room as policymakers debate water scarcity in the arid west are cattle. A recent chart from the New York Times sums up the problem: more than half of the Colorado River’s water is used to grow livestock feed. And research from 2020 is clearer: water supports cattle and dairy cows.
In the Great Salt Lake basin, agriculture has consumed 63% of the water that would otherwise flow into the lake. Most of this water is also used to grow alfalfa and other hay products that are consumed by cows.
Utah officials have reinforced their water conservation messages across the state, even pouring millions into a Utah Water Ways project to ensure those messages stick. When asked if the state should also develop a campaign urging Utah residents to limit their beef consumption, Steed responded.
“In this state, I could certainly eat less beef and live healthier,” he said. “Besides, I’m not sure the state wants to dictate to people what they can and can’t produce this way.”
Should Utahns learn to live with a smaller Great Salt Lake?
The Great Salt Lake Strike Team report, which Steed helped create, identified a railroad levee bisecting the lake as a viable solution to prevent collapse. The berm features an opening that can be raised or lowered, effectively dividing the lake in two: a hypersaline north arm that supports little life, and a healthier south arm that supports brine shrimp and brine flies, the two key species in the lake’s ecosystem , houses.
State regulators have raised the berm several times over the past year as the lake shrank and its salinity rose. It is one of the quickest and easiest tools to use to prevent the lake from sinking.
The law passed this year allows for the creation of more banks and dikes to keep at least a small part of the lake ecologically viable. But Steed said policymakers are not yet ready to agree to a smaller, more engineered system as the likely future of the Great Salt Lake.
He pointed out that this has consequences for a smaller lake, including the entire exposed lake floor.
“For salinity reasons, a smaller lake makes a lot of sense,” Steed said. “For dust purposes, a smaller lake isn’t enough…we also have to worry about these human impacts.”
This article is published via The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiativea partnership of news, education and media organizations dedicated to educating readers about the Great Salt Lake.