U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is sponsoring a bill to protect the long-term health of saline ecosystems and “fill a critical data gap that has made it nearly impossible to address a variety of problems caused by declining water levels.”

Romney introduced the bill, the “Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act of 2021,” on Thursday alongside Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon. It would authorize the director of the U.S. Geological Survey to establish a regional program “to assess, monitor, and benefit the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin and the migratory birds and other wildlife dependent on those habitats, and for other purposes,” according to the text of the legislation.

If the bill is passed and enacted, the director would then have one year “to submit to Congress a report describing the work and implementation plan.” Congress would appropriate $5 million annually for the program, which would operate between 2022 and 2027.

In a press release on Monday, the two senators said the bill would help protect saline lakes, including the Great Salt Lake, which serve “as habitats for a diverse array of wildlife” and provide “important economic and social benefits to nearby communities.”

“The Great Salt Lake is the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world,” Romney said in the press release. “It is also an iconic and cherished part of Utah. I’m proud to lead this legislation with Senator Merkley, which will establish a scientific foundation and ongoing monitoring system to inform coordinated management and conservation actions for threatened Great Basin saline lake ecosystems and the communities who depend on them.”

The Utah senator added that the bill “should complement and help elevate the work already being done by the State of Utah to understand this key resource and the role it plays as part of the larger landscape.”

Merkley said that the saline lakes in Oregon, which include Lake Abert and Goose Lake, are “integral to the futures of countless animals and migratory birds, as well as Oregonians’ quality of life and livelihoods.”

“These ecosystems must be protected, but we can’t do that without sufficient data,” he said. “So let’s work to secure the studies and science we need to put long-term plans into action, so we can ensure that our saline lakes ecosystem(s) can thrive for generations to come.”

The legislation is supported by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who called it “a superb bill for the future of the Great Salt Lake and the animals and people who rely on it.”

“It would address the economic value associated with the lake and the importance of migratory birds, help fill gaps in science around hydrology, integrate existing work being done on water quality, and assess future water needs,” the governor said in the press release. “This legislation could be a key to ensuring the viability of the Great Salt Lake far into the future.”

Marcelle Shoop, director of the National Audubon Society’s Saline Lakes Program, which studies the Great Salt Lake and other saline water bodies, said the legislation “comes at such an important time — as we see lakes across the Great Basin drying at an alarming rate.”

“The regional program will build on existing knowledge to help us understand how water supplies and habitats are changing, and identify opportunities where we all can work together on solutions that protect bird habitat and communities,” Shoop said.

The Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act of 2021 was referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Thursday.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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