(CN) — At the beginning of the year, researchers from Brigham Young University published a report saying the Great Salt Lake is in significant danger of drying up and causing catastrophic damage to wildlife and Utahns. Now that the state’s annual 45-day legislative session is over, how did Utah’s politicians respond to the crisis?
With some legislative Band-aids, but not enough substantive policy, some advocates say.
“It’s sad, sad, sad,” said Deeda Seed, the public lands senior campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Seed was especially disheartened by the changes made to House Bill 538, which would have conserved water by banning Utahns from watering their lawns from October to April and sending the water to the Great Salt Lake to raise dwindling levels. The bill was amended, keeping the ban but ditching the requirement to send the saved water to the lake.
The state’s House of Representatives approved the amended bill but it didn’t make it out of the state Senate.
Some legislators pointed to recent heavy snowpacks and the possibility of a heavy runoff of water making its way to the lake as a reason why they didn’t feel the need to enact more urgent legislation to get more water to the lake. But scientists have said the state will need years of good snowpacks to bring the lake up to a healthy state.
“They kick the can down the road,” Seed said of the lawmakers.
The Legislature did manage to pass a bill before the annual session ended Friday that sets an emergency trigger for salinity levels in the lake. If the trigger gets tripped, companies that mine the lake’s brine would be banished until adequate salinity returns.
As water levels in the lake drop, the salinity of the water rises, making it harder for life in the lake, specifically brine shrimp and brine flies. Both the flies and the shrimp are an important source of food for migratory birds that stop at the lake. The shrimp are at the center of a multimillion-dollar industry that uses their eggs, called cysts, for fish farms around the world.
Because of overconsumption of water, 72% of which is used for watering crops like alfalfa, and climate change, the lake has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its surface area since 1850, according to the BYU study.
As the lake dries up, antimony, copper, zirconium and arsenic in the lake bed could be exposed, with dust storms sweeping the metals and metalloids into the Wasatch Front, an area that includes Salt Lake City and the state’s major population centers. This would put millions of people at risk for respiratory illnesses, cancers and other medical problems.
The Legislature also created a commissioner position to direct and oversee the various state departments that deal with the lake.
A third bill guarantees that treated municipal wastewater will be put into the lake.
Other bills — including one that creates incentives for water-efficient landscaping projects, grants to rural school districts to help pay for water and energy efficiency projects, a public-private partnership that educates people about water conservation, and a bill that bolsters the state’s subsidies to agribusiness to make water efficient upgrades to their irrigation systems — are meant to get Utahns to use water from the lake more efficiently.
“It’s hard to know where we’ll be next summer, but the trajectory based on the science isn’t great for us unless we take affirmative measures to divert less water, and that didn’t happen during this last legislative session,” Seed said.
Seed compared the possible future of Salt Lake City to the communities around California’s Salton Sea and Owens Lake, adding the Utah Legislature can’t expect the state to continue to grow with a dead Great Salt Lake whipping up toxic dust storms.
“I think the good news is that there are a lot of people in this community, in this state, that are very concerned about this. People are alarmed and they want to see action,” Seed said. But she added she thinks the situation will get worse before proactive political action is taken to save the lake.
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