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Beehive Archive: Utah's Canary In The Coal Mine

Utah’s Great Salt Lake is a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville. Today, it is the largest saline lake in the western hemisphere and keystone to the ecosystem of northern Utah. Human attempts to dominate its massive waters have radically changed its appearance and ecology. The shrinking lake is Utah’s canary in the coalmine – drying up right before our eyes as climate change begins to affect our home. Trouble began for our inland sea in 1904 when the Union Pacific Railroad constructed a twelve-mile wooden causeway between the lake’s western shore and Promontory Point. It cut the water body in half. The trestle, called the Lucin Cutoff, used wood from almost 40,000 trees – enough for a two-square-mile forest. Eventually it sank, and the causeway blocked the water flow to the lake’s north arm. Now, it is pink in color because increased salinity allows halophilic bacteria to flourish. The less salty south remains a blue-green.

Since 1847, the lake’s surface has lowered 100 feet and its surface shrunk by nearly 2,000 square miles as a result. The primary cause is water diversions on its tributaries, as the Bear, Weber, and Jordan Rivers are siphoned off to support Utah’s growing population. As a terminal lake, anaerobic bacteria from our run-off builds up poisonous mercury, affecting the migratory birds that frequent its shores from as far away as Mexico and Russia. On top of this, the decreased water levels have left islands high and dry, making nesting birds vulnerable to overland predators.

What is the future of our inland sea? As the lake shrinks, environmental issues are starting to appear. Its vast waters have long moderated temperatures and increased precipitation along the Wasatch Mountains. But now, exposed mudflats are contributing to toxic dust in the air we breathe. Our breath, our health, and even some of our key economic industries are threatened by a shrinking Great Salt Lake. With the widespread impacts of climate change increasingly apparent, it is hard to look away from the water management crisis manifesting in our own backyard. 


Editor's note: In a previous recording and write up details about the earthen fill causeway and Great Salt Lake lake levels were incorrect. They have since been corrected.

The Beehive Archive is a project of Utah Humanities, produced in partnership with Utah Public Radio and KCPW Radio with funding from the Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation. Find sources and past episodes at Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive.