Great Salt Lake: Cox urges scientists to ease up on ‘doom and gloom’ messaging

Mar 20, 2023, 5:37 PM | Updated: 5:38 pm

Receding Salt Lake...

Cars travel on I-80 near Saltair, west of Salt Lake City Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Water levels continue to recede at the Great Salt Lake. (KSL TV)


SALT LAKE CITY — Scientists, activists, bureaucrats and politicians convened at the Great Salt Lake symposium this week to talk about the future of the lake, which just six months ago hit a historic low.

Now, as the Wasatch Front braces for another storm amid a record-breaking winter, the mood among the speakers at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law carried some optimism, with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox taking the stage early in the morning on the second day of the symposium.

Cox urged the room full of scientists and activists to scale back on what he called the “doom and gloom,” celebrate incremental improvements, and be careful with messaging around the Great Salt Lake. He used the state’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic as an analogy.

“I would have conversations with experts in the field who would, to me, admit nuance … and then their messages to the public were, this is true. You cannot question it,” he said. “What would happen is oftentimes, the surety was maybe 60/40 in their own minds, but they were selling it or explaining it as 100% surety. And then, if it turned out not to be true, there was a lack of trust.”

Cox says his administration’s pandemic messaging was more effective when he added then-University of Utah David Eccles School of Business dean Taylor Randall, who is now president of the university.

“I wish every scientific department would embed a social scientist with them in what they’re doing. People that understand human nature, not just the nature of a virus or the nature of the Great Salt Lake,” he said.

The forecast for the Great Salt Lake is dire — one recent study warned that within five years, the lake could vanish. Though this winter’s above-average snowfall has given the lake a boost, rising about two feet above the summer’s historic low of 4,188.5 feet, many scientists and experts warn the situation is still dire.

Cox reaffirmed that saving the lake was his and the legislature’s “top priority.” But he asked the audience to ease up on their negative messaging. “Doom and gloom,” the governor said, leads to apathy.

“When we tell people that the sky is falling, what most people do is, they give up,” he said. “… If the Great Salt Lake is already done, if it’s already dried up, we’re all going to die from toxic dust, then I’m just going to go ahead and water my lawn.”

Cox also defended inviting Utahns to pray for rain in 2021, encouraging the crowd “not to mock people and their religious views.” The governor says he was surprised when his invitation was met with ridicule.

“What I believe and what I understand, is people that are praying for more water will use less water. I just absolutely, totally believe that,” he said.

In that same breath, he said incremental change should be celebrated, not criticized. During last year’s general session, Cox says lawmakers accomplished in a single year what he thought would take five or six years.

“And you know what the legislature hears, from the left and from the scientific community? ‘What is wrong with you guys? You aren’t doing nearly enough.’ And human nature is, ‘You know what? Screw you guys. If you don’t want our help, we’re done. We’re out.’ That’s what we can’t allow to happen,” Cox said.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t be critical, you should be critical. But I would say be cautious with your criticism,” he added.

At least one group took issue with Cox’s speech. The Utah Rivers Council, in a statement sent out shortly after the governor left the symposium, said he “mostly steered clear of water policies or the State of Utah’s failure to deliver water to the Great Salt Lake after two legislative sessions, not even addressing water or the Great Salt Lake until 19 minutes into his 25-minute speech.”

“Our state leaders have failed to solve the Great Salt Lake crisis because they have turned their back on meaningful solutions to put water in the Lake,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. “Lip service has no impact on the Lake. We need 6 million acre-feet of water for the Lake, not sympathy and promises.”

Taking the stage after Cox, Wilson echoed the governor’s satisfaction with the legislature, telling the crowd his colleagues on capitol hill have “come light years in a very short period of time in a bipartisan way.”

Wilson laid out some of the legislature’s recent efforts, which includes $50 million for agricultural optimization, installing secondary water meters, a water trust to help manage the lake, and the creation of a new Great Salt Lake commissioner.

“There’s not a single source of water that is truly independent. Everything on that map is connected to something,” Wilson said, referring to a Utah watershed map. “What this means for all of us is the Great Salt Lake and the challenge we have with the Great Salt Lake, is a larger problem.”

One divide between Cox and advocates, as seen on Friday, is the idea of setting a target level for the lake. When asked about a failed resolution that would have created just that, Cox said it’s a nice idea, but “will do absolutely nothing to get more water to the lake.”

But the Great Salt Lake Strike Team, which consists of researchers with the University of Utah and Utah State University and state agencies, recommended lawmakers set an ideal elevation for the lake between 4,198 to 4,205 feet. The recommendation came shortly after the resolution failed.

Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake, spoke a few hours after Cox and laid out three suggestions for policymakers — the first is setting a “target range for the lake.”

The second was to “move beyond the meander,” which she said means thinking beyond the lake to include the entire watershed.

“The limitations of only being able to see as far as the meander line, whatever that magic elevation is, it’s an impediment,” she said.

And lastly was a call to rethink the idea of “beneficial use” — essentially the basis and measure of a water right — when it comes to the Great Salt Lake.

“The beneficial uses that are going on in the lake have to be responsible uses on behalf of the future of this Great Salt Lake ecosystem. I think, when water in the lake was considered wasted, there was a trend to put as much of it as possible to beneficial use … 600,000 acre-feet of water rights are provided for mineral extraction,” she said. “And I’m just wondering if there is an opportunity to revisit this.”

Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, opened the day with a presentation on how other regions have dealt with similar saline lakes crises. And during the last segment of the symposium, closed the event with a poignant note.

“I‘m just going to end by putting an asterisk on that optimism — that the timeline is short. We need to get water to the lake and we need to do it quickly. That’s all I have to say.”

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Great Salt Lake: Cox urges scientists to ease up on ‘doom and gloom’ messaging