As The Great Salt Lake Continues To Drop, Expert Says Both Arms Need Protection

Jul 7, 2021

A train drives across the causeway dividing the Great Salt Lake in two.
Credit Aimee Van Tatenhove

A railroad running through the Great Salt Lake divides the body of water into a salty north arm and the fresher south arm. Water levels at the Great Salt Lake are the lowest in recorded history and as the lake dries up, both arms need protection.

The Great Salt Lake is a unique landscape and supports many unusual ecosystems. Although a railroad cuts the lake into two arms, there are a few culverts that can be used to control salt concentrations between the lake’s arms.

 

Jaimi Butler, the coordinator for the Great Salt Lake Institute, said with industry and wildlife concentrated in the south part of the lake, a major focus is preventing the south arm from getting too salty as the lake dries up. However, closing the culverts comes at the expense of the north arm, putting unique species and ecosystems at risk.

 

“I worry about dust coming off of the lake," Butler said. "The salty dust has toxins in it that have come out of the watershed will be blown off of Great Salt Lake and can end up harming surrounding systems. We would definitely lose one of the world's largest breeding grounds for American white pelicans.”

 

If the health of either arm of the lake is ignored, Butler said this hits wildlife and humans hard. 

 

“Great Salt Lake encompasses freshwater to super hypersaline water and everything in between, that supports a diversity of life and we are seeing right now, the effects of not caring about it, you know, shrinking lake levels, dust storms, increasing salinity,” Butler explained.

 

Even as such a complex issue, Butler believes there’s hope. She said though this will require smart water laws and a lot of creativity.

 

“Thinking outside of the box and supporting people who are finding creative solutions to our water problems because we will all be affected, you know, we've been managing Great Salt Lake for over 150 years," Butler said. "So we have the power to manage it in a sustainable way that we just, I think have missed the mark on and I do have a lot of hope.”

 

To learn more about the Great Salt Lake, visit Westminster College's Salty Science Series YouTube series.