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Water scientist says Utah legislature isn't doing enough to save Great Salt Lake

Utah Legislature meets to pass more than 500 laws, including free-range parenting.
The 2023 General Session of the 65th Legislature opened on January 17th and closed March 3rd.

"Emergency measures needed to rescue Great Salt Lake from ongoing collapse." That’s the title of a paper published early this year, by Utah researchers, which warns: if we don’t do something soon, the Great Salt Lake will collapse in 5 years.

The Utah legislative session recently ended, and one of the authors on that paper, USU professor and head of Watershed Sciences Patrick Belmont, said he’s disappointed with the underwhelming initiative legislators made to solve Utah’s water issues.

“A lot of them saw the snowpack that we've got, which is a great snowpack, and just weren’t interested in doing the math and talking with the experts and understanding that this snowpack really only buys us about a year," Belmont said. "So, it was a lot of the same short-sighted, wishful thinking that got us in this emergency situation in the first place. And they basically just kicked the can down the road."

Though legislators did approve $200 million to optimize the way farmers irrigate their crops, Belmont said that only solves 15% of the problem; the other 85% of the water necessary to save Great Salt Lake can’t be preserved by water optimization alone. But he emphasized that agriculture has to be a part of the solution.

“We’re not going to solve this problem without fallowing fields, like taking alfalfa fields out of production," Belmont explained. "And it's not a few acres, it's a few tens of thousands of acres that we need to take out of production in order to get the amount of water down to the Great Salt Lake that we need."

Belmont said water should be priced according to its value: simple supply and demand. He also said the legislature needs to bolster what’s called the water market, a system that allocates water shares and allows farmers the right to sell those shares to Great Salt Lake.

Belmont stressed that we’re close to the point of no return, but that Great Salt Lake can still be saved. He said next year's legislative session is crucial to the fate of the lake. Belmont added that if we don’t understand the scope and urgency of the problem, the state will follow the same path as other governments in the U.S. and abroad who have dried up similar sized lakes.

“There's no doubt in my mind: we will regret it and future generations will regret it if we go down that road," Belmont said.

Belmont ran for Utah House District 3 in 2022, and lost to Republican Dan Johnson.

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. He researches a protein receptor and its effect on opioid drugs in the brain. He reports on opioids, space and Great Salt Lake. Like Uncle Iroh, he believes that the cure for all ailments is more hot tea. He is also an avid jigsaw puzzler.