By Mark Biddlecomb
Utah is dry—really dry. When thinking about Utah, most people conjure up images of redrock canyons or the barren Bonneville Salt Flats. Indeed, Utah only receives about 15 inches of precipitation annually. So as you might guess, this makes wetlands in Utah pretty scarce. In fact, only about 1 percent of Utah's land mass is considered to be wetland habitat. You may ask yourself why, then, is Ducks Unlimited so interested in conserving wetlands there?
The answer, in large part, is the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. Located in northern Utah along the west side of the Wasatch Mountain Range, Great Salt Lake supports 75 percent of Utah's wetlands. Wetland types include what many think of as "typical" marsh, i.e., seasonal and semipermanent wetlands growing cattails and tules, as well as pondweeds, smartweeds, and other important waterfowl forage plants. However, vast mudflats and playas are also present, as are brackish areas located where freshwater inputs mingle with the salty water of the lake.
Great Salt Lake is the largest fresh-or saltwater lake in the United States after the Great Lakes. "Discovered" by the explorer and trapper Jim Bridger in 1825, Great Salt Lake covers an area of approximately 1 million acres. There are four main rivers that enter the lake: the Jordan, Weber, Ogden, and Bear. It is the terminal basin for a watershed that is more than 21,000 square miles in size.
The wetlands that surround Great Salt Lake total more than 400,000 acres and include both public and private marshlands. These wetlands support myriad waterfowl, shorebirds, other waterbirds, and a variety of other wildlife. The numbers can be truly astonishing. Five hundred thousand Wilson's phalaropes, more than 1 million eared grebes, and more than 3 million green-winged teal, pintails, and other ducks call Great Salt Lake marshes home at some point in their annual life cycle. Many of these birds are drawn to the lake by the superabundance of invertebrates such as brine shrimp and brine flies, as well as the freshwater food resources provided in large, managed marshes such as the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and private duck clubs.
The Great Salt Lake system clearly is important for waterfowl. However, like so many places these days, it is also under siege from a wide variety of human use, degradation, and disturbance. Located directly adjacent to Salt Lake City and its suburbs, it is literally side-by-side to more than a million people, and this number grows by leaps and bounds every year. In fact, the Wasatch Front is predicted to be built out by 2050. That means that in less than 50 years, most all the remaining open land, land that is now irrigated pasture, alfalfa, corn, and yes, some of the wetlands, will be built over.
The juxtaposition of these wetlands to the city is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that this remarkable resource is so accessible to so many people. Birdwatchers, hunters, students, and people who just enjoy open space can all visit many of the wetlands that are just outside their door. Yet, this juxtaposition is the problem, too. Urban expansion continues to threaten the very existence of many of these wetlands. Water diversions, loss of water quality, loss of habitat to development, and loss of habitat to exotic species such as carp and phragmites are just some of the issues facing us today.
Water diversions and pollution are two of the biggest threats to the wetlands of Great Salt Lake. Proposals to divert freshwater for domestic use are always popping up. Many view water that ends up in the wetlands or lake as wasted, serving no useful purpose. Proposals to divert the Bear and Jordan rivers have been put forth. Most recently, a proposed project to clean groundwater contamination would discharge selenium-laced water into the Jordan River and hence downstream to the wetlands. Selenium at relatively low concentrations is known to cause extreme deformities in waterfowl. DU and many of it's partners have voiced opposition to this proposed discharge and are hopeful that the proposal will be modified to keep selenium from entering this important wildlife habitat.
Ducks Unlimited has long recognized the importance of this area to waterfowl and the issues that threaten its vitality. To respond to these problems, DU has launched a concerted conservation and fund-raising campaign: the Utah Wetlands Initiative. This initiative, formally announced at last year's DU national convention, has been informally under way for several years. DU has been working closely with public agencies such as the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as numerous private landowners to help ensure that degraded wetlands are restored and can be managed to their maximum potential. Several duck clubs, as well as public agencies, have participated in DU-led restoration projects funded by a variety of programs. DU has garnered $3 million from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act alone.
DU has positioned itself as a leader in conserving Utah's wetlands and natural resources.
We have made great headway restoring, enhancing, and protecting more than 20,000 acres in the last three years. But our work is not done. DU is expanding efforts not only to wetlands restoration and enhancement, but to development of geographic information systems (GIS) analysis of water diversion impacts to wetlands, development of a GIS-based land-use planning model, and conducting waterfowl energetic needs research. Using these tools, DU will focus available resources to the areas with the most importance to waterfowl, as well as the highest potential for restoration. In this way, DU will make sure the ducks keep flying in Great Salt Lake marshes.