The Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and arguably the most important waterfowl habitat area in the Intermountain West. The problem? It's shrinking at an alarming rate. Due to years of severe drought, water levels are historically low, creating a dire situation for millions of waterfowl and countless other wildlife that rely on this irreplaceable wetland ecosystem.
In fact, the Great Salt Lake is a critical migration and breeding area, utilized by 35 different species of waterfowl alone. But decades of worsening lake conditions have introduced an existential threat to this once thriving bastion of waterfowl habitat.
In 2021, the lake fell to its lowest ever recorded area at an estimated 950 square miles – down from the average area of 1,700 square miles. And a once-in-a-generation crisis for one of the most important breeding grounds in the Pacific Flyway requires a once-in-a-generation conservation effort. That's exactly how the Utah legislature responded when they recently designated much-needed resources to preserve the Great Salt Lake.
In the closing days of Utah's legislative session, a bill authored by Representative Brad Wilson was unanimously approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Spencer Cox. This legislation provides $40 million to the Great Salt Lake, including $10 million designated specifically for wetlands assistance.
The bill, HB 410, will establish the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program, which forms a water trust to preserve water flowing into the lake from its tributaries, improve water quality, invest in restoration of managed and unmanaged wetlands, fund scientific studies and improve the lake's natural infrastructure.
Additional investments will certainly be required in the years ahead, but this is a giant step in the right direction for one of the most important waterfowl areas in North America.
"Ducks Unlimited is very excited to see this happen and very grateful to the Utah Legislature for all of this," said Dr. Mark Petrie, DU's Director of Conservation Planning for the Western Region. "We recognize the Great Salt Lake as one of the most important areas in the Pacific Flyway, and we're looking to invest more of our resources in the Great Salt Lake in the coming years as well."
But that's not the only legislation recently passed by the Utah legislature intended to improve conditions at the Great Salt Lake. HB 157 appropriates $7 million annually in mineral royalties to be directed to state sovereign lands that include many State Waterfowl Management Areas. In addition, HB 33 allows conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited to lease water rights for instream and wetland flows and HB 118 will help promote wetlands mitigation projects. Each of these bills were signed into law by Gov. Cox, and each of them can help restore the Great Salt Lake.
Restoring the lake will require a long-term, collaborative effort by policymakers, conservation groups, hunters and fishers and many other stakeholders in the region – and it won't happen overnight. But this once-in-a-generation investment is a great place to start. DU and our conservation partners look forward to continuing our work alongside policymakers in Utah to increase our shared investment in improving conditions at the lake so that it remains a productive hub for waterfowl and other wildlife for generations to come.