UTAH (ABC4) – The Great Salt Lake continues to be a major talking point here in Utah, especially as it continues to hit record low water levels. Around two-thirds of its water comes from a single source: the Bear River. Multiple agencies are working together to study the economic impact of the river in Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah to better understand what opportunities the river currently provides and safeguard those opportunities in the future as the population continues to grow.
A study released back in 2012 found the Great Salt lake’s annual economic impact in Utah is more than $1 billion. Now, it’s a race to save the lake. Utah lawmakers recently approved $40 million to go towards studying the lake, and Sen. Mitt Romney introduced a bill that would allot an additional $10 million in federal funds.
“It took 10 years but here we are, and we’ve got a lot of depth about why people should be concerned about the lake,” Laura Vernon said.
Vernon is the Great Salt Lake Coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources at the Forestry, Fire, and State Lands division.
Vernon and DNR – FFSL has worked to continuously gather information on the lake as the water levels have continued to drop for years. From the lake’s economic impact to its impact on the weather along the Wasatch Front. Their work has helped Utahns become more aware of the incredible resource that is the Great Salt Lake.
“The Bear River needs to be analyzed for its own economic significance and impacts on potential projects,” stated Zac Covington, the Regional Growth Director for the Bear River Association of Governments (BRAG).
Covington is one of many people who will spend the next year studying the economic impact of the Bear River in Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah. The Cache Water District and BRAG will be joined in their efforts to conduct the study by other water districts, county officials, and other stakeholders. Some of these will also come out of Idaho and Wyoming.
Ultimately, the river comes to an end at the Great Salt Lake and provides about 60 to 65 percent of the lake’s water. It is undeniably intertwined in the lake’s economy and ecosystem. However, the study will focus on the 350 miles of river that impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of people well before its water makes it to the lake.
“There are already quite a lot of benefits from the bear river,” explained Lara Gale, Regional Growth Planning Specialist for BRAG. “There’s agricultural benefits, there’s recreational benefits, and there are enormous wildlife and ecosystem benefits.”
Gale will also play an important role in conducting the study that will span half a dozen counties and three states. She said they estimate the study will cost up to $150,000. Just recently, they conducted an economic impact to learn about the economic impact Bear Lake has on the surrounding region. That study cost under $100,000. Part of these studies involves surveying visitors to learn more about what draws them to the area, how much money they plan on spending during their visit, and what kind of accommodations they look for when planning their trip.
As Utah’s population continues to grow, so does the development of the land. Gale said we need to understand the river’s current value in order to make decisions when it comes to future development. “Then we can say, ‘Okay, if we choose to make this change what will be the outcomes and how will they compare to the benefits that we were getting given the previous state.’”
She added: “Really, we should be stewarding all our natural assets. And really, this is an important aspect of stewardship for a very important body of water.”
BRAG and the other organizations involved are currently applying for different grants to help fund the study. If all goes as planned, they should have their findings by the end of 2023.