Great Salt Lake Approaching Record Low Levels

Aug 27, 2014

The Great Salt Lake is only 2 1/2 feet from its all-time record low water level, which media reports was set over 50 years ago.

Low snow packs over the last few years are reported to have majorly contributed to water shortage in the area.

Wayne Wurtsbaugh, professor of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University said another factor creating the low levels in the lake is the diversion of water for agricultural, industrial and municipal use.

“Analysis suggests that the lake is probably about 11 feet lower now than it would be if we weren’t diverting water. That 11 feet, because of the shape of the basin, converts to about a 50 percent reduction in the volume of the lake,” said Wurtsbaugh.

Wurtsbaugh said other saline lakes globally, such as the Aral Sea, have severely diminished because of water diversion. However, he said the urbanization of the Salt Lake region has resulted in less water usage than the previously agrarian culture in the area.

Wurtsbaugh said water shortage in the lake can result in dust clouds. He also emphasized that increased saline saturation places stress on the ecosystem.  

“Probably the biggest effect is just the increasing salinity,” Wurtsbaugh said. “So as lake levels go down, you’re losing your water from evaporation, and so the water goes up into the air, but the salts remain behind.”

He said the high saline content of the lake creates an unusable habitat for brine shrimp, resulting in a decrease in growth rate and egg production, which negatively impacts bird populations in the area.

An additional concern caused by lowering water levels is the potential for high levels of mercury and selenium. Wurtsbaugh said research is being conducted to observe these effects; he said early conclusions have shown no harm to the habitat.

Media reports the lake has lost approximately half a foot per month since May. The current record for the lowest water level measured at 4,191.35 feet.