Should companies stop siphoning off the Great Salt Lake until it fills up again?

Keeping the water in the beleaguered lake is more important than any individual industry, commentators from Ogden to Saratoga Springs argued.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The US Magnesium Dike north of Stansbury Island on Saturday March 26, 2022.

As US Magnesium moves ahead with obtaining permits to expand its intake channels, dozens turned out for a public meeting Wednesday to rally in defense of the Great Salt Lake.

The lake’s advocates have included sailors and skiers, students and small business owners. Some traced their roots in Utah to the Mormon pioneers, while others were more recently transplanted from California and the Midwest. Some represented environmental groups such as FRIENDS of the Great Salt Lake, the Audubon Society, and HEAL Utah. Others simply represented themselves and their families. They all shared a common message – the Great Salt Lake is in trouble, and allowing an industry to siphon more water is a terrible idea.

“The best available scientific evidence at our disposal indicates that the impact of this project on the lake would be devastating, long-lasting and potentially irreversible,” said Rose Smith, FRIEND of Great Salt Lake executive chair, in one tearful comment.

The meeting was hosted by the Utah Division of Water Quality, which must approve US Magnesium’s project and ensure that it does not violate the federal Clean Water Act.

The lake has hit record lows two years in a row. It’s declined so much that mineral companies are struggling to access the brine they need to vaporize into valuable materials like magnesium, road salt and fertilizer.

US Magnesium plans to dredge and expand a 1.1-mile channel called PN, an additional 0.7 miles and a second 2.6-mile channel called P-0, an additional 3 miles. It would mean digging about 127 acres of lake bed. When completed, the expanded channels would allow US Magnesium to swallow 100,000 gallons per minute from the Great Salt Lake.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The project would mean the company could still access the lake’s waters should it plummet to a catastrophic 4,185 feet. A US Geological Survey gauge on the south side of the lake’s rail causeway shows its elevation at 4,188.8 feet. The lake is so low that a gauge at the marina near Saltair, which is normally used to measure the height of the lake, does not work.

The Department of Water Quality has already drafted a permit draft for US Magnesium’s canal project, alarming many at the meeting.

“I love the lake and the water in it,” Kelly Hannah told state regulators at the meeting. “…If this permit is granted, I would characterize it as gross negligence on the part of the state for any citizen living along the Wasatch Range.”

Around two dozen people attended the meeting in person, while virtual attendance peaked with more than 80 participants. Commentators shared their fears of toxic dust storms at the Great Salt Lake and whether they could render all of northern Utah uninhabitable. Others lamented the collapse of microbialites over the lake that serve as the basis of a food web for brine shrimp, brine flies and millions of migratory birds.

“We have to stop going on as before,” said Helene Cuomo. “Our health is at stake, our planet is at stake, wildlife is at stake.”

Last year, US Magnesium diverted 41,457.54 acres from the lake, in part because it was having trouble reaching the water. But the company also uses less brine when the lake level is low because the minerals are naturally more concentrated. It has water rights for nearly 145,000 acre feet.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The US Magnesium Dike north of Stansbury Island on Saturday March 26, 2022.

Some argued that with the lake on the brink of collapse, every drop of water the industry pulls out should be replaced with water rights or shares. They expressed frustration at all the strides lawmakers have made in reforming Utah’s archaic water law and all the efforts state residents have made to uproot their grass and reduce water use just to do so those profits are squandered by a company that does just that and employs a few hundred people.

“You don’t know what it means to lose the lake,” Al Rockatansky wrote in the Zoom meeting chat. “What I thought would happen in 40, 50 years is happening right in front of me, it’s terrifying.”

Others urged the division to protect the lake’s wildlife and recreational values, not just its economic performance.

“We trade with our namesake,” said Michael Shiplet, a member of Great Salt Lake Rowing. “We trade our… inheritance for corporate profit.”

In a previous interview, a US Magnesium representative said the company is aware of the dire situation of the lake and is only seeking the minimum amount of water it needs to stay in business. It is currently the only native source of magnesium in the United States. The extractor has also received approval from the US Army Corps of Engineers for its canal expansion project.

The Utah Division of Water Quality will continue to accept through October 27. They can be sent to Should companies stop siphoning off the Great Salt Lake until it fills up again?

Justin Scaccy

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