Studies reveal the economic might, ecological uncertainty of Great Salt Lake

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23 2012 4:52 p.m. MST

Water levels in the Great Salt Lake appear to be dropping Oct. 11, 2010.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Twin studies almost two years in the making alternately reveal the economic powerhouse that is the Great Salt Lake and the frailty of its ecological health.

Significant threats now and into the future for the Western Hemisphere's largest terminal body of salt water include reduction in lake levels, increases in the invasive phragmites and losses of the alkali knolls — those upland areas from the lake mostly on private property that provide nesting alternatives for waterfowl.

The separate studies conducted by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council probed the economic significance of the lake and what is known so far about the present-day health of its expansive ecosystem.

Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the Friends of the Great Salt Lake, said the studies should receive the red carpet treatment as they make the rounds of various state agencies, local government groups and conservation organizations.

"It is just a very exciting start point for the next steps that we can take to preserve and protect the system, especially since we know how economically important it is," she said.

The studies, which were finalized last month and debuted in a presentation this week to state water quality board members, support a dual message of the Great Salt Lake's ecological wonders and the unique nature of the vast amount of dollars it brings to Utah.

A total of $1.3 billion is generated each year in direct economic impact to the state's gross domestic product by the lake, which serves as the United States' single home-produced source of magnesium and supplies 35 percent of the world market for brine shrimp eggs.

Another $375 million is pumped into the economy in labor income with 7,706 full- and part-time jobs created because of the lake's existence.

Some of those dollars in economic impact are realized in the very tangible statements delivered monthly to households in sewage and waste-water treatment bills.

It's estimated that the lake saves users and operators of publicly-owned waste-water treatment plants anywhere from $10.3 million to nearly $60 million each year.

The study points out that the unique characteristics of the lake allow it to process the nutrient discharges with standards that are below what would be required, or even allowed, in a freshwater lake.

For Leland Myers, that necessary relationship the lake has with waste-water treatment plants is the reason he's been involved in more than a decade of studying the lake and making sure the less harm done, the better.

"Where we discharge into it, the goal is to do no harm and to know that is to study and determine if there are improvements that can be made to systems without unduly taxing the citizens."

Myers, chair of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council and manager of the Central Davis Sewer District, said the health assessment of the lake culled information from nine top researchers actively engaged in various studies of the lake.

The goal was to assess the health of eight ecological categories in and around the lake at a specified elevation, including the open water in bays, wetlands, mudflats and playas and alkali knolls.

Aside from examining the lake's overall health, the probe looked at each of the four bays — Gunnison, Bear River, Farmington and Gilbert — from an independent, ecological standpoint because of their unique characteristics.

The study points out that the bays have greatly varying salinity levels that give rise to habitat that supports differing variety of birds as well as bugs and plants. At the same time, "health" conditions at these bays differ as well — some have suffering impounded wetlands like Farmington Bay, while others such as Bear River are in good shape.

"One of the big reasons Farmington, for example, rated poor is the invasive phragmites, which is a really nasty invasive species," Myers said. 

Researchers found, too, that the aquatic plant life that ducks thrive on in Farmington Bay is in bad shape, but they don't know why.

The "don't knows" contained in the body of research are substantial, Myers added.

In those categories where at least half the attributes could not be rated, Myers said "not ranked" was the default choice.

"I was not personally surprised having been involved in the research as I have been," he said. "If I was a government person, I'd be concerned about this whole gray area. You'd think because this lake has been here forever, we should know everything about it. We don't."

Myers said the goal now is to move forward with defined areas of ecological research that need to be prioritized for funding.

The economic study, he added, will be the advisory council's bully pulpit to drive home the importance.

"If you don't have sustainable ecological goals, you will not have sustained economic output from the lake," Myers said. 

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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