House passes resolution on maintaining Great Salt Lake water levels

(KCPW News) [AUDIO AFTER BREAK] If the Great Salt Lake dries up much more than it already has, the consequences could be devastating. To underscore that point, Rep. Timothy Hawkes (R-Centerville) points to other places where terminal lakes – meaning lakes with no natural drainage – have dried up significantly, or altogether.

“Around the world where we see the loss of terminal lakes the effects on human health, the environment, and the economy are catestrophic,” he said.

On Friday, on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives, Rep. Hawkes highlighted what happened to Owens Lake in California, as a warning for the state of Utah.

“The water supply to Owens Lakes was diverted to Los Angeles to feed growth there – which is exactly what it did,” Hawkes said.

“But what was left was a dust bowl which has become the single largest source of dust pollution in North America; the mitigation costs for the people in the Los Angeles area just to try to keep the dust down have exceeded $2 billion and will ultimately exceed more than $3 billion total.”

Rep. Hawkes is the sponsor of House Concurrent Resolution 10. The point of the resolution is pretty simple.

“This resolution simply recognizes that this is not a problem we can just afford to let go,” Hawkes said.

HCR 10 calls on the state of Utah to study the problem and for action to avert economic, social, and environmental harm due to declining water levels at the Great Salt Lake and its wetlands.

Other lawmakers rose to speak in favor of the resolution on Friday, including Rep. Merrill Nelson (R-Grantsville), who said that the health threat posed by dust blowing into northern Utah from the lake was just one part of the problem.

“The Great Salt Lake puts snow in our mountains,” he said. “That affects our skiing, that affects our drinking water supply…it affects us in ways that we may not realize,” Nelson said.

Nelson also said it might be time to reevaluate planned water projects – like the proposal to divert the lake’s largest source of water, the Bear River.

“We need the GSL, we need to maintain the levels. The levels have dropped 11 feet over the past several decades and planned projects will drop it another ten feet – and so we may need to reevaluate some of those projects.”

The Bear River Development Act of 1991 called for the diversion of up to 220,000 acre-feet of water per year from the river. Originally planners thought that water would be needed by 2015, but the date has been pushed back to 2040.

Scientists from the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and elsewhere have been looking at the impact of the increase in airborne dust from a drying lake bed focusing on how it affects snow pack, the region’s water supply, and human health. Heavy metals like mercury and other toxins are present in the dry lake bed, much of it likely the result of the lake’s mining and industrial past and present.

Trying to find ways to maintain enough water in the lake to keep it – and Utahns – healthy, is the subject of Rep. Hawke’s resolution.

It passed unanimously in Utah House and now heads to the senate.

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