“He is dead wrong about what we did and the impact it will have on the lake,” said Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Republican, calling Abbott an “alarmist.”
“This is the second year of what I think will have to be a 10-year effort,” Wilson said. “We accomplished everything we set out to do and more. I feel really good about what we’ve done and where we are with the lake.»
Last fall, the water levels of the Great Salt Lake reached an all-time low. More worrisome, the lake’s salinity shot up to levels that left scientists uncertain how much longer the creatures at the bottom of the food web (brine flies and brine shrimp adapted to extreme conditions) could hold out.
In January, Abbott and other scientists and conservationists released a report saying the lake needed «emergency measures» to stop the «ongoing collapse» and that «the lake as we know it is on track to disappear within five years.»
The consequences are enormous.
Each year, some 10 million migratory birds, of more than 300 species, depend on the lake’s habitat for survival. The low water levels threaten several industries, including mining companies that evaporate brine from the lake to extract metals and commercial producers that raise brine shrimp, which are used in aquaculture.
As the lake dries up, more unhealthy dust is expected to reach communities near the lake. Scientists are concerned that the dust contains toxic metals.
In January, scientists and politicians said that this winter could be a turning point.
Utah’s accounts were stuffed with billions in windfall revenue, and lawmakers promised they would spend lavishly on the lake. The good snow year heralded a boost to lake levels.
In his budget, Cox proposed that Utah spend more than $560 million on water improvementsincluding $100 million to address the emergency and buy short-term farm water leases and «herd» that water to the Great Salt Lake.
When the legislative dust settled in March, lawmakers agreed to spend more than $400 million in ongoing, one-time funding for the Great Salt Lake and water conservation, according to a list of budget allocations.
Lawmakers used $200 million to fund a program to optimize water use in agriculture and invested in infrastructure for cloud seeding and water metering. They funded studies on air quality and dust and created a new state office: the Great Salt Lake Commissioner.
Lawmakers approved a bill to encourage turf removal and efficient landscaping, a bill to ban water reuse in the Great Salt Lake Basin to get more water flowing into the lake, and a bill to ensure that the state has emergency powers if salinity or ecological thresholds are crossed.
Lawmakers chose not to set a specific target for lake levels or spend millions of dollars to raise lake levels by purchasing short-term water rights.
Some argued that such emergency measures were not necessary.
“We had an emergency plan that would have gotten enough water, in my opinion, to save the ecology” of the lake, said state senator Scott Sandall during a recorded media event. “Mother Nature helped us. We didn’t have to pull that lever for emergency use.»