Not many states have a defining natural feature that locals actually discourage visitors from seeing.
Go to Arizona, and people are happy to take you to the Grand Canyon, which is even better in person than in pictures. Go to Wyoming and Yellowstone awaits with inviting lodges and a website full of handy trip planning tools. Washingtonians are all too happy to direct you along well-defined pathways to scenic parts of Mt. Rainier or to drive up Mt. St. Helens.
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But come to Utah, ask to see the Great Salt Lake and chances are you will encounter people who try to talk you out of it.
There are good reasons for this. As a Colorado couple that had pulled off I-80 to explore the muddy south shore asked me a few years ago, with crinkled noses, “Why is the lake so disgusting?”
It’s not just the stench (especially along the south shore) or the swarms of brine flies. The hike from the car to the actual water line can tax any tourist’s casual walking shoes. That is, unless the water line is so high it threatens to flood the highway.
Right now, that hike is becoming increasingly difficult. As of Monday this week, the lake level was 4,193.8 feet above sea level. The lowest point ever recorded was 4,191.3 feet, 52 years ago.
The question on a lot of minds is, will the lake ever rise again?
A lot of locals will be happy to take your money on that bet. Then again, there are some unique circumstances this time around that shouldn’t be ignored.
This is another in a long line of dry years. And while experts say the mountain snowpack is enough so far to keep anyone from panicking, not much of the runoff will make its way to the lake.
Even if the Wasatch Front had a wet year, the excess water would have to fill reservoirs first before filling the lake. But with the population growing, the water diversions upstream are growing, too.
Given the lake’s importance to the local climate (it occasionally generates its own weather or intensifies storms), to migratory birds and other species that live in and around it, and to the local economy, the lake’s health ought to be given more attention.
Unfortunately, no one is quite sure how to provide that.
Crag Miller, a Utah Division of Water Resources engineer, told me, “The problem is we don’t have a mechanism for reacting to those alarm bells” the lake is sending. “We have laws encouraging us to use every drop of water before it gets to the lake.”
Miller said this comes from decades of desert-dwelling thinking “that any water that makes it to the lake is wasted.”
If alarms come, they probably will be sounded first by industries that use the lake. Andrew Rupke, a Utah Geological Survey industrial minerals specialist, told me the minerals produced by companies around the lake had an annual value of about $628 million in 2013.
Of course, if the lake is efficient at anything, it is in getting people to over-react. When it reached record high levels more than 30 years ago, the state built huge pumps to push water into the West Desert. Now that it is approaching a record low, it’s easy to believe this is the new permanent condition.
History suggests otherwise. However, that doesn’t rule out the need to use water more wisely in a desert.
But if the state wants people to use less water on their lawns or for other things besides drinking, it needs to use market-based solutions.
The non-profit Utah Rivers Council published a study a few months ago, with the help of a Utah State University economics professor, which showed water districts receive more money from property taxes than from ratepayers. If that subsidy disappeared, and large users were forced to pay the true cost of water, they would find more ways to conserve.
Former governors Mike Leavitt and Olene Walker both tried to eliminate water subsidies, with no success. It won’t be easy.
It may, however, be easier than trying to make the lake attractive to casual tourists along I-80.