Biden signs bill to study salt lakes in drought-hit US West

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FILE - Angelic Lemmon, a park ranger for Utah's Department of Natural Resources, walks across reef-like structures called microbialites, exposed by receding waters at the Great Salt Lake, on Sept. 28, 2022, near Salt Lake City. Federal officials will more closely monitor the environmental, economic and health impacts of shrinking lakes throughout the drought-stricken West after President Joe Biden on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, signed a law passed through Congress that creates and funds monitoring efforts into lakes including Utah's Great Salt Lake, California's Mono Lake and Oregon's Lake Albert. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY – Scientists will get $25 million to study salt lake ecosystems in the drought-stricken U.S. West, as President Joe Biden signed legislation Tuesday allocating the funds in the face of unprecedented existential threats caused by the lack of water.

The funding allows the United States Geological Survey to study the hydrology of the ecosystems in and around Utah's Great Salt Lake, California's Mono Lake, Oregon's Lake Albert and other saline lakes.

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Amid a decadeslong drought, less snowmelt has flowed through the rivers that feed into the lakes, causing shorelines to recede and lake levels to plummet.

Dwindling lake levels jeopardize the people, animals and businesses that rely on maintaining the ecosystem.

The lakes often serve as critical habitats for migratory birds. Dust exposed by receding water levels can be blown into the air and have dangerous health effects on surrounding communities. And further depletion threatens the canals and infrastructure that a multi-million dollar mining industry needs to extract salts from the lakes.

In Utah, the Great Salt Lake shrunk to its lowest point in recorded history, posing threats to economic output, snowpack, public health and wildlife. Ski resorts worry about a future without lake effect snow. State lawmakers and local water district officials have committed to funding and incentivizing conservation efforts, yet development, population growth and enduring agricultural demand continue to strain the water supply needed to maintain the lake.

In eastern California, state officials have dramatically curtailed the amount Los Angeles can divert from the creeks and tributaries that feed Mono Lake in the eastern Sierras. Diminishing lake levels have for years made the water saltier, jeopardizing bird, fish and brine shrimp habitats.

The legislation signed on Tuesday establishes what it calls a “Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Assessment and Monitoring Program” to examine variables such as water use and demand and “climatic stressors.”

Marcelle Shoop, the Saline Lakes Program Director for the Audubon Society, said in a statement that the funding would complement existing conservation efforts. “The Great Salt Lake and the network of saline lake ecosystems in the arid West face very serious challenges with increasingly low water levels, placing local communities and millions of migratory birds at risk," she said.

Although the legislation's sponsors — senators and congressmen from throughout the West — lauded the effort and said they hoped the studies would inform solutions, the program does not mandate any conservation measures or institute new water management guidelines.

"These ecosystems must be protected, but we can’t do that without sufficient data," Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, the bill's sponsor, said in a statement.

The bill adds to $40 million that Utah lawmakers allocated to the Great Salt Lake for watershed enhancement programs this year and supplements $10 million in Army Corps of Engineers funding for the saline lakes passed as part of a defense spending bill.