When you fly into Salt Lake City from the north, you get a poignant view of the vanishing water in the Great Salt Lake. The problem is real. So what is Utah doing about it? Last Chair traveled to Antelope Island, in the heart of the lake, to speak with Utah state representative Tim Hawkes, a passionate advocate, on the very realistic steps the state is already taking to save the Great Salt Lake.
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In today’s world of polarized politics, Hawkes stands out as a leader who works across the aisles. He laughs as he describes himself as a conservative who advocates for natural resources. In fact, if there is any one issue in Utah that truly unites politicians, it’s saving the Great Salt Lake.
Utah State Representative Tim Hawkes stands on the Antelope Island shoreline of the Great Salt Lake. (Martha Howe)
Hawkes grew up in Brigham City, Utah, learning to love the outdoors as a young boy, hiking, fishing, hunting, cutting school to go skiing. He followed his passion into law, becoming a water rights attorney with a thriving career in Washington, D.C. Over time, he missed the Utah outdoors and moved back to his home state, working first with Trout Unlimited protecting waterways.
Today, Hawkes is a leading advocate saving the Great Salt Lake, working closely with his fellow legislators to seek real solutions. In his day job, he serves as legal counsel for the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative.
Utah State Representative Tim Hawkes being interviewed for the podcast in Antelope Island visitors center. (Martha Howe)
How real is the problem? For our podcast interview, we drove across the causeway to Antelope Island. What used to be a roadway surrounded by water, now has only a few small pools. Birds that used to flock along the highway are now relegated to small patches of water. To find water along the shore of the island, in some places you would need to travel a mile.
Can the lake be saved? Hawkes thinks so. He’s a positive, forward-looking leader focused on solutions.
Here’s a sample of Last Chair’s episode 5 of season 4 with Utah state representative Tim Hawkes on how Utah is working together to save the Great Salt Lake.
What is it about being out in nature that's so compelling to all of us?
There's something deeply human that appeals to us about wild things and wild places. And I think it's important for our mental health, for our spirituality, sense of well-being and connectedness, just presence.
The Great Salt Lake is an amazing place but has often been taken for granted in the past.
It's easy to see the lake as kind of an oddity. I grew up in Utah and you see it as out of sight, out of mind. It's been interesting as an adult to get to know it better, and to understand the ecology. That's part of my job – to learn about it. But just to get out to Antelope Island and see the amazing wildlife that's out here, it feels otherworldly.
Last Chair Podcast host Tom Kelly Walks through the abandoned Antelope Island marina with Great Salt Lake advocate Tim Hawkes. (Martha Howe)
The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake – what does that mean?
A terminal Lake is basically a lake that sits at the bottom of a watershed and it doesn't have an outlet. So there are rivers flowing in. There are no rivers flowing out. And so the only way that water is lost is through evaporation. That tends to concentrate salt and other minerals in that system. And that's where you get these unique systems where you need uniquely adapted critters that can survive in them because the water has a very harsh salt content.
Why has the lake attracted so much attention recently?
For those that have been engaged in protecting the lake and trying to conserve the lake, we've all been astonished by just how much interest has kicked in over the lake in recent years. And I think that has everything to do with these low lake levels. So the low lake levels have driven concerns about how that can affect the state and can affect the ecosystem that's driven media attention. And that largely then accounts for the public starting to gain more and more awareness of, ‘oh my gosh, the lake does touch us in ways, really important ways that we didn't fully realize we've got to do something to protect it.’
Utah has an opportunity. The eyes of the world are watching what Utah does here. They're very interested. And the question is, can Utah act cooperatively, collaboratively to save this enormous resource? If we do that, we will have set an example that nowhere else has been done. - Utah State Representative Tim Hawkes
Is this an issue with Mother Nature, climate change, and population growth?
It's really human-caused. And one of the interesting data points that I don't think people realize, is they assume because we're in the middle of a very significant drought, that we're getting a lot less precipitation and the science actually doesn't back that up. If you take Salt Lake Valley or Cache Valley, important watersheds that feed into the Great Salt Lake, and you just measure them over time, you just look how much rain and snow is falling and you plot it out – it's largely flat. It hasn't changed. It's hard to make the argument that we're getting less precipitation. So the only thing that can account for these dramatically low levels are really two things. One is that our climate is getting warmer. And as it gets warmer, then it takes more water to keep crops up or keep your lawns green or whatever. So we use more water. But the second way that it affects us is that we are just altering this ecosystem. The best available science suggests that we have contributed about 11 feet of elevation loss. If you took that 11 feet and you put it back into Great Salt Lake today, the lake would be right close to its historic average.
Close up of one of the many dried-up portions of the Great Salt Lake. (Martha Howe)
What are the key water usages impacting the lake?
Agriculture is a big use and then everybody points the finger at agriculture. It is interesting though because when the areas around Great Salt Lake were largely in agriculture, the lake was fairly healthy. What's changed is a lot of urban and suburban development and that changes flow patterns as well. We all have grass where before there was just sagebrush and we try to keep that grass green even in the middle of the summer, even in the heat of summer. And so we call it municipal and industrial, but basically water that's used for homes and businesses. And the last one I would say is industry. We have a very important mineral industry out on the Great Salt Lake and the way that they get the minerals out of the water is forced evaporation, so they contribute to lake declines, as well. So I sort of say it's agriculture, it's homes and businesses and then it's industry.
If water usage by humans is the problem, how can the legislature act and act quickly?
The pace of change has been nothing short of extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it. It's hard to change the water law. But, I'd say in the last two to three years, we've probably seen six to eight major pieces of legislation that have direct effects on Great Salt Lake – really extraordinary bills that provide greater legal recognition for environmental uses of water, that provide greater flexibility in terms of how we share the water, and that fundamentally call out Great Salt Lake and try to create legal tools to help fix this enormous problem.
Utah State Representative Tim Hawkes and Last Chair Podcast Host Tom Kelly recording the podcast about the Great Salt Lake. (Martha Howe)
You’ve been in public office for eight years and are now retiring from that service. What motivated you to serve?
Well, I'm one of those crazy idealists that really do try to ask myself, ‘what have I done to make the world a better place?’ That's really what got me interested in public policy. And I was working outside of the legislature on these policy questions. I had sort of written off the idea of running for office, but my wife was the one that actually suggested to me, ‘Hey, Tim, you get really excited when it comes to politics and policy, have you thought about running?’ And so I made kind of a wild-haired decision to run. It's been immensely rewarding and gratifying. I'm so grateful for my colleagues at the legislature – many of whom are just terrific people and people of vision and integrity and I've been able to work with them to accomplish some amazing things.
What can we, as skiers and riders, do to help?
Part of it is just being informed and helping educate others. I think most people, at the end of the day, want to do the right thing and they just need good information. And so we can be a source of good information. We can help educate people and inform them and let them know. The lake touches us in so many ways. It affects the air that we breathe, the food that we eat, the water that we drink. It is tied into our snowpack through lake effect snow. So for a skier, right, I mean, it touches something that skiers care greatly about. So we can help educate other skiers and snowboarders about the value of the lake and the way that we're connected to it. But the single biggest thing we can do goes back to what I said before, and that's that we can conserve water and encourage other people to do the same. We can be the model in the neighborhood. That or our lawn maybe is not so big and not so green. Right? And we can just set a good example and try to cut back. I tell people it just everybody in the state of Utah watered one time less per week in the summer – that alone would generate a significant block of water if we could deliver that down to Lake.
Listen to Last Chair to learn more …
There is a lot more detail in the podcast from the origins of the Great Salt Lake to its ecology and to detailed solutions. Listen in to Last Chair the Ski Utah podcast.
Great Salt Lake Advisory Council
In 2010, the Utah state legislature created the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council was created to advise on the sustainable use, protection, and development of the Great Salt Lake.
FRIENDS of the Great Salt Lake
Founded in 1994, FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake’s mission is to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake ecosystem and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the Lake through education, research, advocacy and the arts.
Antelope Island State Park
Are you looking for a day trip during your visit to Utah this winter? Consider a drive out to Antelope Island State Park. It’s a scenic drive where you can learn more about the ecology, take a hike and see bison roaming along the shoreline.
Utah native Tim Hawkes had a thriving career as an attorney in Washington, DC until one day he realized how much he missed the mountains, deserts and waterways of his native state. So he came home. As a water rights specialist, he hitched on with Trout Unlimited for a few years, advocating for waterway protection. Today, he’s general counsel at the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative. He is passionate about nature and outdoor recreation, and as a Utah state representative, he’s been at the forefront of efforts by the State of Utah to save the Great Salt Lake.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:00| It is a beautiful day out here at Antelope Island. The drive over the causeway this morning was spectacular. And we're going to talk about some difficult issues with the lake and with the receding water line. But at the same time, I have to say this is a really beautiful place. Joining us, Tim Hawkes. Tim, thank you so much for joining us on Last Chair.
Tim Hawkes: |00:00:19| Great to be with you, Tom.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:20| What's nice out there this morning, wasn't it?
Tim Hawkes: |00:00:22| Beautiful day. Great day on the lake. The water's amazing to see. And the birds.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:28| Yeah, the and I know there's good and bad to this, but as you come across the causeway now, which used to have water coming right up to it, there are just some pools and some are connecting pools and some are standing water but some of them are very dense with birds. And I know that that's both good and bad, but it is nice to see them still.
Tim Hawkes: |00:00:46| Yeah, it's a great time to come out and visit Antelope Island to see the lake.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:49| Yeah. So we're going to dive into this situation with the Great Salt Lake, which is an issue that's becoming more and more known not just in Utah, but around the world. But before we do, let's get a little bit of your background. And I know that for folks accustomed to coming to Last Chair and hearing about deep powder or things like that. We're going to take a different tack today. But Tim, you grew up in Utah and you were a skier as a child here. Why don't you go back and tell us a little bit about growing up in Utah and then we'll lead up to how you got into this business?
Tim Hawkes: |00:01:19| Sure. I was born in Brigham City and lived around different places. Most of my teenage years were in Utah County, and we used to cut school to go skiing back when it was, I'm dating myself here, $5 a day to ski Solitude or Brighton. And it was too expensive to go over and hit Alta or Snowboard because they were $10.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:41| And by the way, folks, this is the price of the lift ticket, not the bus.
Tim Hawkes: |00:01:44| Yeah, that's right. So I really had a great childhood growing up here in Utah. I got to spend a lot of time outdoors, fishing, hunting, skiing, and hiking, all the things that make Utah such a great place to be.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:56| Yeah, it really is. And I know that you moved away for a little bit in high school, but what brought you back to the state?
Tim Hawkes: |00:02:03| Well, that's kind of an interesting story. I went to law school and found myself at a large law firm in Washington, D.C., and I suppose, in a conventional sense, it felt like I'd arrived. I was working at the Supreme Court, working on Supreme Court briefs at one of the most prestigious firms in the world. But I found I was miserable and I was spending, you know, 16 to 18 hours a day at a computer screen and not getting that time outside. So that led to really looking at my life choices and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And I decided I wanted to try to give back. It was nature. It was the outdoors that really appealed to me. So I did a Green Acres move and took a job with Trout Unlimited here in Utah, and that brought me back here to Utah, and that's been almost 20 years ago. And I've been working on water law and policy ever since.
Tom Kelly: |00:02:54| Were you a trout fisherman?
Tim Hawkes: |00:02:56| Yes, I had a long-lifetime love of fishing. My grandpa taught me to fish when I was five years old. So it was really fun to come back and take a job. That allowed me to connect with that deep passion that I've had for so much of my life.
Tom Kelly: |00:03:10| We're going to talk today about an amazing outdoor resource in the Great Salt Lake. Let's just talk in general about being outdoors and recreating outdoors. You grew up in Utah. You made a move to come back here. What is it about being out in nature that's so compelling to all of us?
Tim Hawkes: |00:03:27| I think there's something deeply human that appeals to us about wild things and wild places. And I think it's important for our mental health, for our spirituality, sense of well-being and connectedness, just presence. You know, we talk a lot these days about being present. Well, I'll tell you, the best way to be present is just to spend some time outside getting familiar with your body, you know, working over these landscapes. And it just feels rough and raw and real. And that's what I love about it.
Tom Kelly: |00:03:55| What's a good summer weekend for you and your family here in Utah?
Tim Hawkes: |00:04:00| We love to just get out and do a lot of hiking, canning earrings, something that I took up recently. And I love how tactile and physical that is. And it takes you to some really amazing places. So, you know, a perfect weekend for me is getting out, seeing some beautiful places, boots on the ground, putting some mileage on the boots and just seeing new things, new experiences. That's just perfect for me.
Tom Kelly: |00:04:24| Today, we're out at Antelope Island State Park, which is a remarkable resource. It's connected to the mainland by a causeway. There are so many activities here. My wife, Carole, and I like to come out here a couple of times a year and maybe we'll go do a little mountain biking, do a little hiking, or just driving down to the Fielding Gar Ranch to see the bison. But we'll talk a bit more about this amazing resource out on Antelope Island and really the ecosystem that it is a part of here.
Tim Hawkes: |00:04:53| Well, growing up it's easy to see the lake is kind of an oddity. You know, I grew up in Utah and you see it as out of sight, out of mind. It's been interesting as an adult to get to know it better, to understand the ecology. That's part of my job is to learn about that. But just to get out to Antelope Island and see the amazing wildlife that's out here, it feels otherworldly. You're so close to this major urban center, and yet when you get out and start hiking Frary Peak or walking along the shores of the lake, it feels like you're almost on another planet. It's really otherworldly and quite extraordinary. The colors, the textures, the forms are amazing. For a while on Instagram, I was just going to Google and taking screenshots of the landscapes out here because it's abstract art. It's crazy. Really extraordinary landscapes.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:41| Yeah, it really is. Urge everyone to come out here and you know, we do get out here a lot, but coming out here to record the podcast at the Visitor Center today, I was just thinking about what's my impression going to be? And for sure it's a different experience coming across the causeway now. But you know what I have to say? It's as beautiful as it ever has been.
Tim Hawkes: |00:06:00| Yeah, still quite striking, still a lot to do and see. And that speaks to the resilience of this system. And it's one of the things that gives me some hope.
Tom Kelly: |00:06:06| Yeah. In your day job you work with the brine shrimp industry. Tell us a little bit about your role there and how you found your way to that.
Tim Hawkes: |00:06:15| Yeah, well, thanks. It's funny. So I was working for Trout Unlimited for years, and then about six years ago, I took a job with the brine shrimp industry. My daughter says I'm moving down the food chain. So fish ... Fish food. And I suppose that algae might be in my future. But the brine shrimp industry needed somebody. They needed a lawyer, and they needed somebody that was familiar with water law and policy. And so fortunately they picked me up and it's been a great gig. It's a very interesting industry that's tied intimately to the ecology of the lake. So as go the brine shrimp, so goes the ecosystem, or vice versa. If the ecosystem is healthy, then the brine shrimp population is healthy and vice versa. And so it's a really interesting industry. It exports all over the world and helps feed a growing world. So it's been a very rewarding and interesting place to work.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:02| For those who might not know. Can you tell us a little bit about what brine shrimp are? These are not the kind of shrimp that we have in a shrimp cocktail. These are really special organism. Tell us about brine shrimp and what they are.
Tim Hawkes: |00:07:14| Yeah, they're quite a remarkable critter. They feed the shrimp that you eat in your shrimp cocktail. But brine shrimp are a highly adaptive, very durable little critter that survives and even thrive in these hypersaline systems that are too salty. They actually they're in marine environments as well. So like the ocean, but they thrive in terminal lakes, like the Great Salt Lake. They're rather small. I don't ... they look like kind of a wigged-out potato bug maybe. It's the way to say it. You know, several adults would fit on your thumbnail. But they're interesting in that they lay an egg or it's an insisted embryo that's very small, very fine, very durable so you can boil them, you can freeze them and they'll still hatch. So they survive in these really tough environments and they need to be adaptive for harsh conditions. So it turns out and it took people some time to figure this out, but those eggs, those cysts have high value because they can be basically dried out and processed and then shipped around the world where they're used in shrimp and fish hatcheries. They're baby food for baby shrimp and fish. They're absolutely vital to global aquaculture, like I said, to feed a hungry world. The estimate is that it supports about 10 million tons of seafood production is supported in one way or another by brine shrimp, by these little tiny cysts. And one thing that I just pointed out, it's a very interesting industry or fishery. We fish for them in that it's supremely sustainable. It's been done in a way that is not only not harmful to the environment, but actually beneficial to the environment. The harvest actually smooths out those peaks and valleys of the population of the brine shrimp population. And that's good not only for the brine shrimp, but for all the millions, tens of millions of migratory birds that also use brine shrimp is an important food source.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:10| Give us a sense of the importance of the Great Salt Lake to the brine shrimp industry worldwide.
Tim Hawkes: |00:09:16| So until the late nineties, the Great Salt Lake was the sole source of global supply and a few down years in the late nineties sent people scurrying around the world to look for alternate sources of supply, which they found in China, sort of western China and Siberia in Russia. And so today the Great Salt Lake, depending on the year, it can be up or down, but it's roughly 40 to 45% of global supply. And that's why I can say with some confidence, if you ate a shrimp and your shrimp cocktail, there are chances are that shrimp, eight brine shrimp from the Great Salt Lake at some point in its life.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:48| Let's go back to the origins of the Great Salt Lake, long before any of us were around millions of years ago. But how did this lake form and what has created it's you. Uniqueness.
Tim Hawkes: |00:10:01| So goes back really to the last ice age as these amazing ice sheets push down across North America. And then they started to recede and as they receded and melted, they left these huge lakes. Lake Lahontan was one, Lake Bonneville was the other. And Lake Bonneville, at its biggest extent, covered almost half the state of Utah would have been a big, deep, largely freshwater lake, would have big trout swimming around in it and would have been an amazing thing to see.
Tom Kelly: |00:10:29| For visitors, those of us in Utah, we kind of know about Lake Bonneville, but for visitors to the state, it gives us a sense of where that was and how many years ago.
Tim Hawkes: |00:10:39| So you're talking about 10,000 years ago. You can still see the ancient shorelines of Lake Bonneville If you fly into Utah or if you're driving around, you can see the old shorelines of that amazing lake. And again, to think about it, it's quite extraordinary. But it would have covered most of the northern half of Utah, would have been covered by this very, very large lake. Those lakes, eventually, as the climate changed, they broke out and these amazing floods to the Pacific Northwest. But then they further dried out and desiccated down to, in this case, the Great Salt Lake, which is the largest terminal lake in the Western Hemisphere in North and South America. And that's what makes it kind of unique. Now, it's not unique in the sense that it's the only one. We have terminal lakes in Nevada, in California, down in South America, and of course, some of the regions I mentioned before, the Middle East, China, Western China, Xinjiang, Siberia has a lot as well.
Tom Kelly: |00:11:35| Can you explain a little bit more? What is a terminal lake?
Tim Hawkes: |00:11:38| So a terminal Lake is basically a lake that sits at the bottom of a watershed and it doesn't have an outlet. So there are rivers flowing in. There are no rivers flowing out. And so the only way that water is lost is through evaporation. That tends to concentrate salt and other minerals in that system. And that's where you get these unique systems where you need uniquely adapted critters that can survive in them because the conditions are very harsh salt, salt content very high.
Tom Kelly: |00:12:01| So it is called the Great Salt Lake for a reason. What is the salinity level? Normally in the Great Salt Lake.
Tim Hawkes: |00:12:08| It ranges, you know, if seawater is about 3% salinity, the salt content of the Great Salt Lake is usually 4 to 5 times that level. So you know, 12 to 15% somewhere around that, that's the level of the Great Salt Lake. That's why if you taste it, it's really salty. That's why you're quite buoyant If you come down and float in it.
Tom Kelly: |00:12:31| If you look at the ocean, how does that compare to what we might find in the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean?
Tim Hawkes: |00:12:37| So like I said, it's about … the seawater is roughly and I'm no expert in this but roughly 3%. So this is you know, it's four or five times as salty as seawater, but all the critters that would live in the ocean can't survive here outside of things like brine shrimp.
Tom Kelly: |00:12:53| Let's talk about the ecosystem itself. Can you give us a little bit of the science behind the ecosystem here?
Tim Hawkes: |00:13:01| It's a really interesting ecosystem. Again, the foundational species, well, it's really algae. And I tell people it's really kind of interesting if you fly over Great Salt Lake. So you fly out of Salt Lake City International Airport and you look down at the lake, it's either going to be blue or it's going to be green. So if you're out here at Antelope Island it might be pink. If you're flying over the north arm, which is kind of a unique thing we could talk about, but if you're flying over the south part, we call it Gilbert Bay, so you're headed to California. Look down at the lake. It can be blue or green, depending on where it's at in its cycle. If it's green, it's an algae dominated environment. So not just the salts concentrate, but all the nutrients that come down from the watershed concentrate in this lake and it feeds algae and its unique algae that survive in these hypersaline environments. And so you get all this algae in, it looks green, so the brine shrimp die off in the wintertime. So in the spring you look down on its pea green ... pea soup, you can hardly see anything. Well then the brine shrimp hatch out and they graze it down. They eat all that algae. And pretty soon it's crystal clear the lake's blue. And you can see all the way to the bottom. Well, now they've eaten themselves out of house and home. They start to starve to death. And then the algae rebounds. The lake goes green again, and then the brine shrimp rebound. And this cycle, the lake continually goes through these cycles. So the foundational species, the cornerstone species of the lake are its algae and then its brine shrimp and something called a brine fly, a type of midge. And then those in turn feed tens of millions of migratory birds, some of the most about 90 to 95% of the world's population of eared grebe fuel up, use the Great Salt Lake as a refueling station and largely fuel up on brine shrimp and brine shrimp eggs.
Tom Kelly: |00:14:52| What is their migratory pattern? So if they're stopping here at the Salt Lake, what's their departure point and their destination?
Tim Hawkes: |00:14:59| It's really interesting to just look at some of these banding studies and they'll put a band on a bird and they'll track it here to Great Salt Lake and see where it goes. Those birds will go as far away as Siberia, Newfoundland and down into Central and South America. So while some of them move much more regionally, some of them move over enormous distances. And that's why we can say with confidence the lake has not just local importance, but really hemispheric even global importance, particularly for certain species.
Tom Kelly: |00:15:26| You know, it's pretty amazing to think about the fact that a bird could stop here and find its way to Siberia.
Tim Hawkes: |00:15:32| Really amazing. But birds are amazing critters. This is an important refueling stop, and that's one of the things that really raises our concern moving forward, which is you can think about it. There used to be a lot of refueling stops for these birds, but in this record drought, those start to winking out. It's almost like shutting down service stations or gas stations. There's fewer and fewer for the birds to go to. And so for some of these species now, they only have one or two places they can really go. And it really ups the ante for those birds.
Tom Kelly: |00:15:58| Let's talk about the northern part and the southern part of the lake. Many years ago, actually over a century ago, a railway line was put through the northern half of the lake. How has that manmade structure differentiated those two sectors of the lake?
Tim Hawkes: |00:16:14| Yeah, well, normally we look at that kind of thing from an economic standpoint. We look at it as well. That's bad. You know, you put across this causeway and you chopped off, you chop the lake in two. In many ways, it's been a godsend. So as I mentioned before, if you fly over the northern part of the lake or if you go out to the Spiral Jetty, which is this famous sort of art installation, the lake is kind of like pink lemonade color. It's super saturated. It's so salty that it can't handle any more minerals. Minerals will just precipitate out of it. And either on the bottom, even in these kinds of floating mats, and it's too salty for brine shrimp, It's too salty for brine flies. And so almost nothing lives up there except these extreme bacteria. But then to the south, we've got the Gilbert Bay ecosystem that I was describing. But interestingly enough, that becomes a little bit of a management problem. We can actually manage salinity by virtue of having that causeway, and it's also a hedge against future uncertainty. So if the south arm got too fresh, the north arm, we've had periods where this happened, then the north arm is where the brine shrimp moved to the north arm and then it can sustain the birds up there. So you get this really interesting dynamic where having those two systems is actually beneficial.
Tom Kelly: |00:17:29| And then there are also some freshwater bays along the eastern side of the lake. And I've honestly never really completely understood that. But how do those get formed within this ecosystem?
Tim Hawkes: |00:17:39| Sure. Those are brackish bays. They really abut into major wetland complexes, which are an important part of the lake ecosystem. They are largely dry to today. So if you went out on them right now, not a lot of water and that's Farmington Bay and Ogden Bay, which are the eastern bays of the Great Salt Lake. It's really four, four bays or four lobes. Those two are largely dry. You get little ribbons of water that are moving through them right now. But, you know, again, that's an important part of the ecosystem. They still have healthy wetlands kind of on the margins, but largely those systems right now are dry.
Tom Kelly: |00:18:12| So it's an amazing science behind the Great Salt Lake. But we have a problem and it's a problem that those of us who live here in Utah have been aware of for some time. But it's a problem that the world is starting to hear more about. The New York Times article in September was one that really generated some global awareness of this problem. Give us a sense of what has happened now in recent years to cause us to be alarmed as to where the lake may be heading.
Tim Hawkes: |00:18:43| Well, it's a great question. I think, as I indicated, for somebody that grew up here, the lake for many years was out of sight, out of mind. And people just don't really think about it that much. And, you know, there's been some great groups out there, like Friends of Great Salt Lake. They've been worried about Great Salt Lake and working on Great Salt Lake, kind of laboring away in the shadows for a long, long time. I think for those that have been engaged in protecting the lake and trying to conserve the lake, we've all been astonished by just how much interest has kicked in over the lake in recent years. And I think that has everything to do with these low lake levels. So the low lake levels have driven concerns about how that can affect the state and can affect the ecosystem that's driven media attention. And that largely then accounts for the public starting to gain more and more awareness of, oh my gosh, the lake does touch us in ways, really important ways that we didn't fully realize we've got to do something to protect it. So it's been this really interesting dynamic, but it's really over the last year or two that most of that attention has come.
Tom Kelly: |00:19:52| The problem is there is just not enough water coming into the lake. Is this an issue with Mother Nature? Is that an issue with mankind or is it a combination of those?
Tim Hawkes: |00:20:04| It's really human-caused. And one of the interesting data points that I don't think people realize, they assume because we're in the middle of a very significant drought, that it's just we're getting a lot less precipitation and the science actually doesn't back that up. If you take Salt Lake Valley or Cache Valley, important watersheds that feed into the Great Salt Lake and you just measure them over time, you just look how much rain and snow is falling and you plot it out. It's largely flat. It hasn't changed. It's hard to make the argument that we're getting less precipitation. So the only thing that can account for these dramatically low levels are really two things. One is that our climate is getting warmer. And as it gets warmer, then it takes more water to keep crops up or keep your lawns green or whatever. So we use more water. But the second way that it affects us is that we just altering this ecosystem. The best available science suggests that we have contributed about 11 feet of elevation loss. If you took that 11 feet and you put it back into Great Salt Lake today, the lake would be right close to its historic average. So people are the ones that have sort of taken away this safety cushion that the lake used to have, where in a big drought like this, the lake would be fine. What we're in a big drought when the lake is not fine because we took away the safety cushion, if that makes sense.
Tom Kelly: |00:21:24| It does. I know there's myriad usages by mankind, but can you go through the different types of water usage that's maybe having the greatest impact on the lake?
Tim Hawkes: |00:21:36| Yeah, the biggest ones ... Agriculture is a big use and then everybody points the finger at agriculture. It is interesting though, because when largely the areas around Great Salt Lake were in agriculture, the lake was fairly healthy. What's changed is a lot of urban and suburban development and that changes flow patterns as well. We all have grass where before there was just sagebrush and we try to keep that grass green even in the middle of the summer, even in the heat of summer. And so we call it municipal and industrial, but basically water that's used for homes and businesses. And the last one I would say is industry. We have a very important mineral industry out on the Great Salt Lake and the way that they get the minerals out of the water is forced evaporation, so they contribute to lake declines as well. So I sort of say it's agriculture, it's homes and businesses and then it's industry. Those are the really big contributors.
Tom Kelly: |00:22:31| You know, I think it's really easy for those of us who maybe don't live directly in the watershed that feeds into the lake to think this is somebody else's problem. But the water usage situations that you speak of, this really is the entire area.
Tim Hawkes: |00:22:44| Yeah. And I would say that the watershed that is the Great Salt Lake is largely the Wasatch Front. So most of the population here in the state of Utah sits in that Great Salt Lake watershed. What you do, how you use your water directly, affects how much water gets to the lake.
Tom Kelly: |00:23:01| Well, it is a big problem. And we're going to talk about solutions, though, in this podcast. We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, Tim Hawkes, state representative is going to talk about some of the solutions that have been proposed. And it has been fascinating to watch how this has been proceeding over the last couple of years. We'll be right back on Last Chair.
Tom Kelly: |00:23:26| And we're back on Last Chair with Tim Hawkes, state representative, talking about the Great Salt Lake. We are out at the Antelope Island Visitor's Center today and a great, wonderful, beautiful place to be. We've talked to him about the challenges right now. The lake is probably 11 feet down from its historic average. And I think in a lot of situations like this, it would be easy to just say, man, this is a real tragedy and try to move on. But what's been impressive is the effort that's been put forward, particularly by the state legislature that you're a part of, to fix this problem. Can you give us a sense of how you've been in the legislature for eight years? What have you and your fellow representatives and senators been doing to try to generate some ideas and concepts to fix this problem?
Tim Hawkes: |00:24:22| The pace of change, Tom, has been nothing short of extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it. And I've been, as I said, almost 20 years in water law and policy, and often at times it takes many, many years just to make the smallest incremental change in water law. It's hard to change water law. But just this last I mean, I'd say in the last 2 to 3 years, we've probably seen 6 to 8 major pieces of legislation that have direct effects on Great Salt Lake. Watershed type. No pun intended. Water, watershed type bills, really extraordinary bills that provide greater legal recognition for environmental uses of water, that provide greater flexibility in terms of how we share water, and that fundamentally call out Great Salt Lake and try to secure ... Basically create legal tools to help fix this enormous problem. You know, when I was with Trout Unlimited, we used to celebrate if we could move a really small bit of water 100 yards, right, and connect habitats, that was something that we celebrated here in the Great Salt Lake. We need ... it's a huge lift to try to do anything. And I've been really gratified by the response of the legislature. I think it's unprecedented in the world. I can't think of a place where policymakers have moved as far as fast as the Utah legislature has over the past couple of years. It's really extraordinary. And the funding side is another piece of that.
Tom Kelly: |00:25:49| You know, one of the points that I want to get your comments on, we all look at issues today. We live in a world where social media has taken even simple issues to a boiling point. But this is one where everybody seems to be unified in recognizing the problem, accepting it and looking for a solution and working together.
Tim Hawkes: |00:26:11| It's remarkable. The lake is remarkable for that as well. And I think it's a couple of different things. One is we sometimes talk about the Utah way, but the Utah way is that we work together to solve tough problems. We tend to take the long view. The other thing is I think that the lake itself and some of the institutions around the lake have really embraced this idea of let's all we're all in this together. So Friends of Great Salt Lake engages not just with environmental interests, but with lake-related industries and businesses. And the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council brings together business and industry and NGOs and local governments to work on these problems. And I think that's created an ethic over time where this is not a partisan issue, it's not a Republican or a Democrat issue. This is a Utah issue and one that we all have to work together to solve.
Tom Kelly: |00:27:02| In October, your fellow representative, Brad Wilson, held the annual summit where those of you or stakeholders in this came together to talk about solutions. What was the vibe at that? Was it a constructive one? Was it one of emotional distress? But what was the tone and tenor and what came out of that summit this year?
Tim Hawkes: |00:27:25| Well, I choose to be optimistic about the lake, and it's events like that that really help make me optimistic, even in the face of some really serious challenges. House Speaker Brad Wilson has taken this up as a signature issue for him. It just really touched him. And his district encompasses much of the lake. But when he took an interest in the lake, it supercharged the state level response. And Governor Cox has played an important role in that as well. But you know, that was focused on what's been done. So we talked about a lot of the things that have been done. We talked about some new things that need to be done. And so some of the big water conservancy districts stepped up and agreed to donate 30,000 acre feet of water for Great Salt Lake, which was great to see that happen. They rolled out a new public part private partnership to encourage water conservation and help ordinary people learn how they can better take steps to save the lake is a tenor of those sorts of things. We'll see continued funding and other things going into the lake, but a lot of efforts still a lot of reason to be concerned. Right. A lot of real problems that we're facing and some real immediate problems that we're facing. But there's reason to be optimistic just because we're tackling it. We're working together to solve it.
Tom Kelly: |00:28:44| I think oftentimes we look at a problem like this and we tend to think of the mechanical or the technological solutions. And I want to talk about those in a little bit. But the simple act of water conservation, how much of a difference can that make if we all get together as individuals, as an industry, to really look at water conservation, Can that make a big difference?
Tim Hawkes: |00:29:08| It can make a huge difference. One of the discouraging things that I hear people say sometimes is why should I conserve? Because, well, farmers are using so much water and farmers are using a lot of water, but farmers are also doing their part. Many farmers this last year were down 40 to 70% in their water uses. And what's really empowering? What's really important for us, if we're concerned about an issue like the Great Salt Lake, is what can I do? And people feel, well, it's a big system, what can I do? But the reality is you can do a lot with the amount of water that you use. And this is the key. It's the amount of water that you use outside that is so very, very important. The water that is used inside for your shower, for your laundry, for your dishes, guess where that water goes. It goes to the Great Salt Lake. Through the treatment systems. Then it goes out to Great Salt Lake, and the lake needs both the nutrients that's in it and the water itself, but it's the water that we use on the grass that we don't use. That's the biggest single problem. So I'm talking about park strips, I'm talking about the places in your yard where you only walk on the grass to mow it. That's a problem. And that really is a luxury we can't afford. If we want to preserve a resource like the Great Salt Lake. When you add up the amount of water that we're talking about here, it is the difference between saving that lake and not saving that lake.
Tom Kelly: |00:30:26| And I know a lot of this can be accomplished just by volunteerism. But as a legislator, what are the challenges to putting legislation in place that will really help this or force this to happen?
Tim Hawkes: |00:30:40| Well, there's always a debate in policy about carrots and sticks, right? In my personal preference, we tend to do better with carrots. And let me just tell you, one of the most interesting and fascinating things, it's easy to get cynical in politics. Anybody that pays attention to politics knows what I'm talking about. But one of the most significant things the state is funded is called secondary metering. We set aside $250 Million just to pay for meters so that people could know how much water they're using outside. And some people already have metered systems, but many ... 200,000 homes in Utah don't have meters, so they pay one flat fee for how much, regardless of how much water they use outside in their lawns and gardens. What's interesting is if you go in and you don't change their pricing structure at all, but you simply put in a meter and then you tell them, Hey, John, this is how much water you used versus how much you used last year, this is how much you're using versus your neighbor. Sally, If you just give them that information and don't change anything else, they tend to conserve between 20 and 40% of their water. Significant reductions in water. We haven't used a stick. We haven't waved a club out and we haven't really even done a carrot. We've just given them information. That's amazing, right? I believe if we provide people with meaningful information, they tend most of them, not all of them. They tend to make responsible decisions. They tend to make better decisions.
Tom Kelly: |00:32:04| I love that approach. We had the benefit this summer. I live in Park City and we had the benefit this summer of having actually a pretty wet summer up there. And in the 30 plus years we've lived here, this was the least I've ever watered. I think we watered maybe from mid-July until mid-August, and that was it. And it was a lot less than usual. So I felt really good about that. But I can see where if you actually had a visual indicator that that would be a lot of incentive.
Tim Hawkes: |00:32:33| That's a big thing. The other thing I'd say is just a changing culture. We have an expectation. You know, growing up in Utah, we have this weird expectation that your lawn should be green in the summertime. It should look like England. Well, we don't live in England. We live in the second driest state in the nation. When I lived in Maryland, every summer your lawn went brown because there was no secondary water, so everyone was just used to it. You know, in August your lawn was going to be brown and it would green up in the fall. When the rains return, we still have this cultural expectation that I've got to keep that lawn green. And one of the gratifying things I've seen is people have realized, hey, listen, we're in a desert. We can't afford the luxury of having wall-to-wall lush green lawns year round. And if we do, there's going to be costs. And the costs are the loss of a resource like Great Salt Lake and then the dust and the economic and the environmental impacts that will result from that.
Tom Kelly: |00:33:24| Let's talk about agriculture, and you had touched on this, Tim. It's easy to point at the agricultural industry, but they also produce what we eat. They produce products to sustain us. What can that industry do? And actually what has that industry done? Because that industry really has started to step up.
Tim Hawkes: |00:33:44| Yeah, exactly. Well, as I pointed out, I mean, the only truly wasted use that I see is our lawns, right? Particularly the grass we don't use because it's not producing anything that anybody can eat, which the farmers are doing. A lot of our solutions really do. We funded about $70 million just last session in what we call agricultural water optimization. And that's a big mouthful, right? But the idea is simply this: there are a lot of technologies that help farmers use water, but they're expensive. And if you just ask farmers to do it or mandate them to do it, they can't because they just can't afford it. So can we provide a financial incentive to help them adopt these water wise technologies? And when we do that, we've sometimes saved hundreds of thousands of acre feet. And by continuing to invest in that, we can keep these rural communities productive and healthy and benefit the lake at the same time. So that's where a lot of our effort is right now.
Tom Kelly: |00:34:41| Let's talk about some of the crazier ideas that are out there. I know there's a number of technological solutions that have been talked about or proposed. Have any of those been seriously considered? And can you speak to any of those maybe more futuristic or crazier ideas that we hear?
Tim Hawkes: |00:34:59| Yeah, Well, desperate times call for desperate measures. I used to just dismiss them all out of pocket. And now we're at a point at which the serious, the challenge that we face at the lake are so serious we really can't afford to write off even the craziest ideas. Some interesting ones that people might think are cockamamie or crazy. A cloud seeding is a good example, but cloud cloud seeding is actually a proven technology. A lot of states use it. Utah has a cloud seeding program, but it's a very small one. So simply by investing more in cloud seeding, we can probably produce more, more rain and snow, not hugely so, but significant, measurable and do it relatively cost effectively. A lot of these other pie-in-the-sky ideas are probably not feasible, at least not within the time frames that it could actually benefit the lake. And by that I mean piping seawater from the Pacific. You know, that's a $10 billion, $20 billion project. Now, it's probably worth it if you look at the impacts, but it would take a decade plus to do something like that, even with enormous investment. And so that's not kind of the solution that we have to look at today. And so I tend to gravitate to the things that we can control. Those are things like cloud seeding. Those are things like just getting smarter with the way we conserve water, making sure that the treated sewage effluent, we call it the reused water that that goes to the lake, you know, those are the things that are going to make a difference over time and kind of over the short term when we really need to see those benefits.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:29| Tim, What are the things that skiers and snowboarders can do to help in this cause? I mean, we're just all a group of individuals, but are there things that we can do that can make a meaningful difference, be that water usage, creating awareness? What things can we energize the ski community to do?
Tim Hawkes: |00:36:46| Well, you indicated some, and part of it is just being informed and helping educate others. Right. Like I said, I think most people at the end of the day want to do the right thing and they just need good information. And so we can be a source of good information. We can help educate people and inform them and let them know, listen, the lake touches us in so many ways. It affects the air that we breathe, the food that we eat, the water that we drink. It is tied into our snowpack through lake effect snow. So for a skier, right, I mean, it touches something that skiers care greatly about. So we can help educate other skiers and snowboarders about the value of the lake and the way that we're connected to it. But the single biggest thing we can do goes back to what I said before, and that's that we can conserve water and encourage other people to do the same. We can be the model in the neighborhood. That or our lawn maybe is not so big and not so green. Right. And we can just set a good example and try to cut back. I tell people it just everybody in the state of Utah watered one time less per week in the summer. That alone would generate a significant block of water if we could deliver that down to Lake.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:55| As we look to wrap up here in a minute, I want to talk a little bit about the Great Salt Lake as a part of the brand of our state, when if you're a skier or snowboarder and you've been to Utah, you have flown in over the Great Salt Lake and you've probably marveled and gotten your camera out. But this lake really is a significant part of the brand of our state.
Tim Hawkes: |00:38:16| I agree 100%. And let me be clear about this. Utah has an opportunity. The eyes of the world are watching what Utah does here. They're very interested. And the question is, can Utah act cooperatively, collaboratively to save this enormous resource? If we do that, we will have set an example that nowhere else is. Done because we would have successfully saved one of these terminal systems. History is not positive in that regard. Like a terminal, like after terminal, like have been lost or damaged irreparably. We have the chance to do it, to solve it, and to set that example for the world. And I'm telling you right now, even the United Nations is looking at Great Salt Lake and looking at what we're doing to protect the lake. And if we can pull it off, it would be such a great thing for the state and its image and its brand. But mostly, more importantly, it's a great thing for you and me and everybody that lives here.
Tom Kelly: |00:39:10| Last question before we get to our final section. You made a decision eight years ago to run for political office and to become a state representative. You have built a strong record there as a Republican who is interested in conservation and have really worked across the aisle. What prompted you to get into the state legislature and what does it mean to you to spend the last eight years helping to impact the policy in our state?
Tim Hawkes: |00:39:42| Well, I'm one of those crazy idealists that really do try to ask myself, you know, what have I done to make the world a better place? That's really what got me interested in public policy. And I was working outside of the legislature on these policy questions. I had sort of written off the idea of running for office, but my wife was the one that actually suggested to me, ‘Hey, Tim, you get really excited when it comes to politics and policy, have you thought about running?’ And so I made kind of a wild haired decision to run. I ran and lost, but two years later I ran for the house and I was elected. It has been immensely rewarding to me to be in this space to see the changes and the positive things that we've been able to do constructively working together. It's been immensely rewarding and gratifying. I'm so grateful for my colleagues at the legislature, many of whom are just terrific people and people of vision and integrity and that and I've been able to work with them to accomplish some amazing things.
Tom Kelly: |00:40:38| Well, we thank you for your service. And we're going to wrap this up with a section that we call Fresh Tracks. Just a few little simple questions for you. And I know you're not a passionate deep powder skier anymore, maybe like you were as a kid, But if you think back to your childhood and growing up in Utah, do you have a favorite place that you used to really like to ski?
Tim Hawkes: |00:40:57| So for me, and it was probably Solitude, because that's where I started on Sesame Street, they called it. They had big painted cutouts of Sesame Street figures. So I remember that quite well. And it was funny because I think I went with a youth group the first time I went skiing. The next year they did that same trip and they came back and one kid had a broken arm, another had a black eye. And I well, you know what, Black diamond, what horrible thing did you take them out? They said, well, it all happened on Sesame Street. So. So you got to be careful even on Sesame Street, I guess.
Tom Kelly: |00:41:33| I understand that. Let's take it back to summer. I know you're a passionate fisherman – favorite trout stream? If you are willing to share.
Tim Hawkes: |00:41:43| You know what I'd say And this is true, by the way, the favorite trout stream is the one I haven't fished. I'm one of those people. I want a new restaurant, I want a new water. I want to experience things that go to a new country. And with fishing, it's the same way. It's my favorite trout stream. Is that one I haven't fished? It's that perfect trout stream. It's in my mind and I know it's there. Seriously, it's one I haven't been to yet.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:08| So listeners, if you have a concept for Tim, pop a note off to him, where do you like to take the family hiking in the summertime? Favorite hiking trail.
Tim Hawkes: |00:42:18| We love to go up the Uintas and just, you know, off Mirror Lake, but try to get away from the crowds. And you don't have to hike too far to get away from the crowds. So we love to do that in the Uintas. And then in the shoulder seasons and in the winter, we really love to go down south and visit redrock country, get out and see some of those love our national parks, love a lot of our state parks and quite frankly, just our public lands. And we just have a terrific time just out there recreating, experiencing, you know, the wilds.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:42| It's wonderful just to shout out for the state parks. And we are at Antelope Island State Park here today, and Utah has amazing national parks. And you all know about Arches and Canyonlands and Zion and so forth. But the state parks in Utah are just remarkable.
Tim Hawkes: |00:42:57| I agree. And if you haven't visited our state parks, the staff is amazing. They're well run. They're incredible places. So I think our state parks are an under appreciated but real gem for the state.
Tom Kelly: |00:43:10| Great thing. Tim, last question. This is going to probably be the toughest one. If you had to sum up what the Great Salt Lake means to you in one word, just one word, what would it be? The Great Salt Lake in just one word.
Tim Hawkes: |00:43:25| Wow. That's hard. But I will tell you, the first word that came to my mind is peace. And that sounds funny, but the experience of standing on the shores of that remarkable lake by myself one evening a few years ago was just a singular experience. And I felt immense peace and grounding in that moment. And that's not something you put a dollar value on, but it means a lot to me personally. And I really love this idea of, hey, this is a test of our stewardship. Can we protect this amazing resource so that I can have not I can have moments like that, but my kids and grandkids can have moments like that.
Tom Kelly: |00:44:08| So skiers and riders, if you are visiting Utah this winter and you got that departure day in a couple extra hours, come on out to Antelope Island, you'll find that peace. Tim Hawkes, thank you so much for joining us on Last Chair. But even more importantly, for all that you've done to help us to preserve this great asset we have in the great Salt Lake.
Tim Hawkes: |00:44:27| My pleasure. Thanks, Tom.