Gov. Cox’s executive order to help the Great Salt Lake a ‘short-term fix’ for salinity levels

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This image shows the causeway that separates the North and South Arms of the Great Salt Lake. Governor Cox’s executive order aims to temporarily stabilize the water levels to prevent ecological disaster in the South Arm. (Marc Weaver/AP Photo)

Gov. Cox issued executive order 2023-02 this month that will raise the berm of the Union Pacific Railroad causeway in the Great Salt Lake.

Raising the causeway is meant to slow the flow of harmful levels of salinity from the north arm of the lake to the ecologically fragile south arm, and help capture the valuable spring runoff from the historic snowpack this winter.

“We’ve been blessed with significant snowpack so far this winter, and this executive order will allow the state to move quickly to increase the lake level in the South Arm by capturing spring runoff. We don’t want to miss this opportunity to safeguard the lake,” Cox said in a media release.

Work started on the berm, and Kim Wells, the Utah Department of Natural Resources communications director, said it will be finished soon.

“The breach is closed. They’re still doing some fine-tuning work and they’ll finish up the other pieces probably by the middle of next week,” Wells said.

This graph tracks the amount of water in feet recorded in the South Arm of the Great Salt Lake from around 1850 to the present day. Conservationists and government officials stress the importance of the continued effort to reach previous stable water levels. (United States Geological Survey)

Some conservationists like BYU student Elias Johnson are concerned about the sustainability and long-term viability of the berm project.

“As a long term solution, it’s not sustainable and it will lead to the death or the demise of the north part of the lake,” Johnson said.

Karl Hunt, public information officer for the Department of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said he is aware of the short-term nature of the executive order.

“This is a temporary fix. We want to capture all of that spring runoff and all of the inflows of the Great Salt Lake to run into that south arm,” Hunt said.

Hunt said one of the first priorities of the project is to save the brine shrimp along the south arm threatened by the increased levels of salinity that could flow from the North Arm.

Some conservationists such as Johnson worry for the north arm of the lake as well, citing the diverse species such as white flamingos inhabiting Gunnison Island.

According to Hunt, the DNR is concerned for the north arm and their long term actions reflect ecological goals that encompass the whole of the Great Salt Lake.

“One thing that we do want the public to know about is that even though we’re raising the berm, we’re not abandoning the north arm of the lake,” Hunt said.

Executive Order 2023-02 will terminate automatically when the “Berm Management Plan” is enacted in the near future. Ben Stireman, the sovereign lands program administrator, said the group in charge of formulating the plan likely will not finalize deliberations until 30-60 days from now. Their first meeting took place on Feb. 13.

Government officials and conservationists both made it clear that continued ecological efforts on the part of the government and the public are necessary to conserve the Great Salt Lake.

“It’s just it’s like spending money on a credit card. It buys you some time. But ultimately, you have to pay it back,” Johnson said.

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