SALT LAKE CITY — Some of the biggest fans of the Great Salt Lake are floating a new idea in response to concern the lake is starved for water and could shrink even more.
Giving the lake its own water share, through a dedicated water right or conservation pool, was one of the proposals discussed at the Friends of Great Salt Lake forum this week.
"We haven't talked about this — ever," said Lynn deFreitas, director of the forum that lasted three days.
Water rights traditionally are owned by people, companies or governments. But some streams and reservoirs have them, supporters say, so why not the Great Salt Lake?
"We all have a stake in the lake," she said. "But this (status quo) puts all that in jeopardy."
At 75 miles long and 35 miles wide, Great Salt Lake is the biggest natural lake in the United States after the Great Lakes, and is used by wildlife, industry, swimmers, boaters, bikers, hikers, hunters and sightseers.
Jack Ray, vice president of the Utah Waterfowl Association, was among the two dozen speakers at the forum. He told of the trouble duck clubs are having protecting the wetlands that millions of birds rely on for food and shelter.
Shoreline development, weeds and pollution already have encroached on those critical habitats, Ray said.
"The appeal of freshwater marshes declines with lake levels," he said.
While most states have consumption advisories for fish because of high mercury, Utah is the only one that warns against eating too much of certain kinds of ducks — three species that feed in the Great Salt Lake wetlands.
"Our organizations have taken a position that enough is enough," he said, noting that they intend to fight further degradation of the wetlands.
Because the lake is located on a shallow playa, scientists say small changes in the water-surface elevation result in large changes in its surface area.
Currently at 4,196.5 feet, the elevation averaged 4,200 feet 1847-1986 and the lake covered about 1,700 square miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The historic low was 4,191.35 in 1963 when it covered only 950 square miles. During high-runoff periods in 1986-87 it reached an elevation of 4,211.6 and had a surface area of about 3,300 square miles, USGS said.
Meanwhile, there already is a request by the Great Salt Lake Minerals Corp. to draw an additional 353,000 acre feet of water from the lake each year, enough to reduce lake levels by about 2 feet, according to state estimates.
Salt Lake City International Airport also is talking about a fourth runway, which, depending on where it's built, could eat up wetlands with about the same area as 60 Salt Lake City blocks, said Ray.
Dave Shearer, harbor master at the Great Salt Lake Marina, said recreationists, industries that do business on the lake and the pilots that fly over it also have a stake in declining lake levels.
The lake's marinas have become so shallow with silt and low water that some search and rescue boats can't use them anymore — nor can many brine shrimpers and recreational boaters, he said.
The low lake level also costs rescuers precious time when their boats get stuck on reefs on their way to accident scenes, he said.
"The game is changed," Shearer said. "We can't just go out and pluck people out of the water anymore."
The idea of reserving a portion of the Utah's already-tight water supply is new enough that no solutions have surfaced yet. But supporters said they will try to raise it, perhaps at the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council or at the in-depth review of the Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan, which comes up for review this summer.