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Despite massive snowpack, conservation key to drought, Great Salt Lake

By Ben Winslow,

2023-03-14
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With significant snowpack in the mountains all over the state, some communities are being told to prepare for potential flooding if temperatures warm up too quickly.

"The weather is going to dictate flooding," said Glen Merrill, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service. "There’s a known right now and that’s the robust snowpack that we have. It’s exceptional. It’s historical."

Merrill spoke at Utah State University's annual "Spring Runoff Conference" on Tuesday about the massive amount of snow the state has received this year. He called it "phenomenal." But while it will be fantastic in recharging reservoirs and other water bodies, Merrill cautioned that it does not mean the drought is over.

"If you think about the drought and how it unfolded, it was multiple years of drought to reach this peak status," he said in an interview with FOX 13 News. "It takes multiple years to come out of that drought."

The conference is focusing on ways to conserve and innovate Utah's use of water during a time of changing climate, increased demand and with a shrinking Great Salt Lake. Panels focused on agricultural water use, lawns and urban growth, climate adaptation in watersheds, harmful algal blooms and wetlands.

"We are seeing a changing world and what are the hurdles in responding to accelerating environmental change," said Brian Steed of USU's Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air.

Still, state leaders are thrilled to see the snowpack that has accumulated — and continues to grow.

"We couldn’t be in a better position to tell you the truth," said Utah agriculture commissioner Craig Buttars, who was attending the conference. "Soil moisture’s good, and if we have a good melt — so not too fast, not too slow — but a good melt, we should be able to replenish a lot of the water in the Great Salt Lake. This should give us more time to make more plans to permanently deal with the issues facing the lake."

Max Roth explains the Utah areas most vulnerable to flooding below:

Explaining where water worries exist

This year, the Utah State Legislature advanced more bills and spent hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to help the Great Salt Lake , which is at a historic low and presents an ecological threat to the state with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack , harms to public health and wildlife.

"Never did I ever think I would see so much money and so much legislation going to Great Salt Lake," said Jaimi Butler, the board chair of the Sageland Collaborative. "But there are really two different time frames."

Butler said that what the legislature passed was great for the long-term health of lake, not enough has been done to address the short-term ecological crisis. Instead, lawmakers relied on the snowpack to buy some more time.

"It’s really that urgent time frame that gets me really worried because it’s not just about birds, it’s about the food that we eat that comes from the minerals, the brine shrimp that come out of the Great Salt Lake, the economic benefits of the lake and the snowpack," she told FOX 13 News.

That view was shared by Tim Hawkes, an attorney for Utah's brine shrimp industry and himself a former state lawmaker who was among the first on Utah's Capitol Hill to call attention to the peril of the Great Salt Lake . He was a featured speaker at Tuesday's conference as he spoke about recent legislation and efforts to help the lake.

"I think the legislature did a lot of great things this last session," he told FOX 13 News afterward. "I do think there's some missed opportunities and I think we pulled back a little bit because of all the great snowpack and everything else that we had."

Hawkes said if there was a year to get water into the Great Salt Lake, this is it. There is supply and there is willingness and Hawkes urged political leaders to do more to get water into the lake. He also emphasized to the crowd that water conservation remains a critical part of Utah's future.

"We've got to be smarter about the way we use water. We have to better understand how it works, where it moves, quantify all that," he said. "So that’s why we have work left to do. But I am encouraged."

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org .

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