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Invasive phragmites are needlessly sucking water out of Great Salt Lake

Feb 2, 2024, 3:44 PM | Updated: 5:28 pm

Sign showcasing information about the Great Sale Lake Shorelands preserve....

FILE - The Shorelines Preserve at the Great Salt Lake (KSL TV)


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.

SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah lawmakers, advocates, state agencies and researchers continue to look for answers to help the Great Salt Lake, one funding request aims to accelerate the effectiveness of an invasive weed eradication program.

To date, the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands has removed 55,000 acres of phragmites, an invasive reed-style plant that dominates the shores of the Great Salt Lake and its upland areas. Ben Stireman, deputy director of the division, noted that while the $500,000 being requested is not in Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget, phragmites are a constant problem for the agency and its partners.

“In 2016, there was a study that showed that phragmites coverage at that date used about 71,000 acre-feet of water and while you know native vegetation also uses water, it’s considerably less water,” he said. Stireman said it’s estimated the state could save tens of thousands of acre-feet of water by removing the invasive plant and replacing it with native vegetation.

Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, told members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday the money would serve as a rainy day fund of sorts to allow for the optimal time for removal — when the plants have sucked up the water, are inundated and therefore prime for removal.

“Not only do each of those phragmites plants (act like) a straw sucking water out of that lake, but also they are changing the topography and blocking the inflow of freshwater and backing it up where it evaporates even more,” he said. “And there’s no intervening user to divert that water.”

Owens said removing the phragmites might be the “low hanging fruit” behind efforts to save the Great Salt Lake, but he stressed removal of the invasive species is vital for the health of the lake’s ecosystem and waterfowl that come to nest, forage and visit.

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Invasive phragmites are needlessly sucking water out of Great Salt Lake