Securing Water for a Drying Great Salt Lake
As Great Salt Lake experiences alarmingly low water levels this year—dropping by nearly a foot below its previous historic low, the Utah Division of Water Rights this past week approved applications to deliver water to Farmington Bay of Great Salt Lake via the Jordan River. An innovative partnership is laying the groundwork to voluntarily share water for the lake to meet crucial needs for people, birds, and other wildlife.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Rio Tinto Kennecott, Central Utah Water Conservancy District, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission collaborated to achieve this important step in addressing Great Salt Lake’s declining water levels. Through two donations of water rights, up to approximately 21,000 acre-feet of water annually could be delivered to Farmington Bay over the next ten years, subject to seasonal water availability and priority of water rights.
Ensuring water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands over the long term is the single most important strategy to prevent further drying of the lake. The state’s 2019 Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake (HCR010) clearly “recognized the critical importance of ensuring adequate water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands, to maintain a healthy and sustainable lake system.”
Keeping water flowing to Great Salt Lake’s wetlands and open water habitats is vital to maintaining important natural areas of international and hemispheric importance for birds, while also benefiting people. Recreational opportunities—including birding, hunting, and boating—as well as the minerals and brine shrimp industries that rely on the lake represent nearly $1.32 billion annually in economic activity. In addition to the economic, ecological, and cultural importance of a healthy lake, adequate water levels also protect public health from lakebed dust exposure, and contribute to Utah’s lake effect snow.
“The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is dedicated to conserving, enhancing and actively managing Utah’s protected wildlife populations, which include shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds,” said Justin Shirley, Director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “We appreciate this donation that represents a significant milestone for the Division and its ability to manage water needs for wildlife in unimpounded areas of Great Salt Lake and support critical wetland habitat around its shores.”
Rather than leaving the Jordan River at the historical diversion points some 30 to 40 miles upstream, the water will flow down river into Great Salt Lake, where the Jordan River flows into Farmington Bay.
“The Great Salt Lake sits on Rio Tinto Kennecott’s doorstep. It’s always been essential to our operations and our employees who care about the lake,” said Gaby Poirier, managing director of Rio Tinto Kennecott, which is donating up to 18,387 acre-feet of water annually. “This is a significant win for the health of the Great Salt Lake and a first in water rights history that we’re able to contribute to the lake as a beneficial water use. We’re excited to be part of this collaborative partnership that allows us to share water resources that benefit wildlife, habitats, delicate ecosystems and the whole Salt Lake Valley.”
Great Salt Lake water levels vary seasonally and from year to year, but overall have been on a steady long-term decline the last 150 years due to water diversions, drought, and a changing climate. Low water flows have particularly affected Farmington Bay, which includes the second-largest wetlands area on Great Salt Lake, covering approximately 121,500 acres. Currently, much of the lakebed in Farmington Bay is dry and exposed.
The aim is to deliver water for beneficial use into Great Salt Lake through voluntary water transactions while not interfering with other water rights, largely held by duck clubs along the south shores of the lake. Importantly, partners worked to find ways to use existing laws and policies to achieve the transactions.
“We are pleased to join in this partnership and use some of our water rights to benefit Great Salt Lake and Farmington Bay and its wildlife, while building relationships with organizations that understand the complexities of sustaining both environmental and community water needs,” said Gene Shawcroft, General Manager of Central Utah Water Conservancy District (District), which donated 2,927 acre feet of water annually. “The District has made instream flow commitments in many areas of the District, including environmental flows in the Sixth Water, Diamond Fork, and tributaries of the Duchesne River. This collaboration also helps the District realize its efforts to support environmental needs in ways that can have long-lasting effects on policy and provide avenues for future District projects that benefit nature.”
Farmington Bay, one of five Globally Important Birds Areas at Great Salt Lake, is a key resource for migratory birds. The Bay provides habitat for a large number of the world's bird populations, including American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, White-faced Ibis and Wilson's Phalarope.
“The health of Farmington Bay is essential to the health and productivity of the adjacent wetlands, including Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary, and we are grateful for this collaboration and the generous contributions of our partners,” said Marcelle Shoop, director of the National Audubon Society’s Saline Lakes program. “We also believe this project lays the foundation for future water transactions that can benefit wetlands and open water habitats of the lake. Audubon will continue to look for creative ways to ensure flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.”
In 2019, Audubon and The Nature Conservancy approached Wildlife Resources, Kennecott and the District to explore opportunities for using Jordan River water rights to benefit Great Salt Lake’s Farmington Bay and correspondingly, the Lower Jordan River.
“The Nature Conservancy in Utah (TNC) has spent years working to protect the health of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, which provides invaluable benefits to Nature and the people who live and work along the Wasatch front,” said Dave Livermore, Utah State Director for TNC. “Our Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, located at the edge of Farmington Bay, will also benefit from maintained flows into the Bay, and we greatly appreciate all the contributions of these partners in helping this project come to fruition.”
The Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission (Mitigation Commission), which is responsible for projects to offset the impacts to fish, wildlife and related recreation resources caused by federal water reclamation projects in Utah, also joined the collaboration.
“The Commission has implemented important wetlands mitigation and conservation projects on the Jordan River and Great Salt Lake and we are fortunate to have longstanding relationships with all these partners in our efforts,” said Mitigation Commission Executive Director Mark Holden. “We greatly appreciate water right donations from Kennecott and the District, as well as Wildlife Resources’ pivotal management role using the water to benefit wildlife and the public. Likewise, the leadership of Audubon and TNC in their outreach and deliberative approach to water management lays an important pathway for similar efforts to preserve Great Salt Lake’s future.”
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories—37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners—we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.