Bill that sets up federal funding for studies of the Great Salt Lake heads to Biden’s desk

Dec 21, 2022, 10:30 AM | Updated: 3:48 pm

Great Salt Lake wetlands...

The Great Salt Lake wetlands near Corinne, Box Elder County, on July 13, 2022. The Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust announced that it will send about $8.5 million in grant funds to help projects that protect the Great Salt Lake’s wetlands. (Ben B. Braun/Deseret News)

(Ben B. Braun/Deseret News)

Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that sets up funding for studies of Great Basin saline lakes, such as the Great Salt Lake, cleared its last congressional hurdle Monday night and is now headed to President Joe Biden’s desk for final approval.

The U.S. Senate voted to approve House adjustments of the bipartisan Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, marking the final step in sending the bill, co-introduced by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Blake Moore, to the president.

The bill informs the U.S. Geological Survey that it must form an assessment program to monitor the saline lake ecosystems in Great Basin states. The federal agency is required to “assess, monitor and conserve” these ecosystems, as well as the wildlife that depend on those ecosystems.” It also sets aside $25 million between the 2022 and 2027 fiscal years.

“I was grateful to use my role in Congress to play a part in this solutions-oriented approach to one of our region’s greatest challenges,” Moore said in a statement Tuesday. “Over the last two years, I have worked with Sen. Romney and the Utah delegation to bring awareness and solutions to the challenges that threaten the Great Salt Lake and our neighboring saline lakes.

“I am thrilled this bill has received the support necessary to head to the president’s desk, and I thank all who have worked on this legislation to get it to the finish line.”

The bill’s journey began in April 2021, as Romney and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, co-introduced the legislation in the U.S. Senate. It was introduced months before the Great Salt Lake’s water levels reached an all-time low in July 2021. The lake reached its current all-time low again this year. The decline has exposed more of its lakebed, which contains arsenic and other potentially harmful chemicals.

The lake’s decline became a national story in the span between April 2021 and now, which Romney said likely helped his Washington colleagues realize the impacts that Utahns had known for some time.

“Now they understand. ‘Yeah, we care,’ because it’s going to send arsenic into the air and other heavy metals, and that won’t only affect Salt Lake City and impact the global economy, it will also affect other communities (east of Utah),” he said, speaking on the subject in July.

The Senate approved the bill at the end of November. The U.S. House of Representatives then approved the measure backed by Moore and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, last week, setting up Monday’s vote to resolve differences in the bills.

Romney said Tuesday that he urges Biden to sign the bill “without delay” so that “we can save this iconic and cherished part of Utah.”

Kevin Perry, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, said earlier this month that the bill has the potential to help researchers understand more about the Great Salt Lake than what is already known, including health impacts for communities by the lake. He added that the measure also offers substantially more research funding.

The bill won’t focus solely on the Great Salt Lake. It would also set up research opportunities at similar ecosystems like Lake Abert and Goose Lake in Oregon, Merkley said. Still, Utah leaders are excited about what it means for the Beehive State.

“This is a superb bill for the future of the Great Salt Lake and the animals and people who rely on it,” said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox in a statement Tuesday. “It would address the economic value associated with the lake and the importance of migratory birds, help fill gaps in science around hydrology, integrate existing work being done on water quality and assess future water needs.

“This legislation could be a key to ensuring the viability of the Great Salt Lake far into the future.”

Bill that sets up federal funding for studies of the Great Salt Lake heads to Biden's desk

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Bill that sets up federal funding for studies of the Great Salt Lake heads to Biden’s desk