Great Salt Lake is in peril. This critical body of water is at its lowest water level on record and continues to shrink. A healthy Great Salt Lake is vital to the region's wildlife, Utah’s economy, and the health of residents.
Water, Drought & Dust
Long-term drought and water diversions for agriculture and residential use are major contributors to the low lake levels. According to University of Utah professor Jim Steenburgh, who studies Utah’s precipitation and weather, “it's not just because we've had a decade of dry weather, but every year we're siphoning off some of the runoff for the lake.”
Steenburgh adds that “an often overlooked side effect of low lake levels is a suffering snowpack.” Great Salt Lake generates significant snowfall through what’s known as the “lake effect,” which causes more precipitation in areas near large bodies of water. As Great Salt Lake continues to dry, less water means less snow, which means fewer powder days for skiers and snowboarders along the Wasatch.
But less snow doesn’t just affect winter recreation, 95% of Utah’s water supply comes from snowmelt. After a summer where the state has endured a severe megadrought, the snowpack of the 2021-2022 winter season will play a crucial role in refilling depleted reservoirs across the state.
To make matters worse, winter precipitation is likely to come increasingly as rain as temperatures warm globally. Steenburgh said snow is expected to melt faster as the lake dries, meaning snowmelt will contribute less water to streams and rivers during the summer months.
“The snowpack in northern Utah is the first and most important reservoir for water resources in our state. It gets built up, you know, during the winter, and then it melts quickly in the spring, giving us this big pulse of spring runoff that we all benefit from, because we use that water for irrigation and for, you know, personal use. But it's also important for maintaining the level of the Great Salt Lake. So that runoff is basically what recharges the lake every spring,” said Steenburgh.
While warmer spring temperatures are likely to melt snow earlier, another culprit may increase snowpack melt - dust.
“The thing about dust is, you know, snow it naturally it reflects a lot of sunlight back to space, but when you had dust in the snow, it's darker, it absorbs more sunlight. So what happens is the snow melts faster. And so it affects the timing of the melt,” said Steenburgh.
Not only is dust a concern for the snowpack, but it’s also a concern for human health.
Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, which means no water flows out of it. As a result, what flows into the lake stays there. When water evaporates, it leaves behind salt, chemicals and heavy metals, which settle in the sediment that lines the lakebed. Unfortunately, Steenburgh said, as the lake dries, more lakebed, and therefore more toxic sediments, are exposed.
“The lake level goes down, it exposes more of the surfaces that were previously covered by water. If those surfaces are left undisturbed, they're not necessarily huge dust emitters. But if they are disturbed, if people are out there trampling on them or things like that, then they become dust emission sources,” said Steenburgh.
When carried by western winds, the sediment may be deposited anywhere along the Wasatch front.
Looking to the future, Steenburgh emphasized the importance of addressing climate change, which is causing the warmer temperatures in the West.
“When we look out a few decades, like what's gonna happen over the next couple of decades depends on prior greenhouse gas emissions. But farther out, yeah, that would depend on the decisions we make today about how we're going to produce energy and that sort of thing,” said Steenburgh.
Not only is wildlife is being impacted around the lake, but across the region.
The size of the Great Salt Lake is measured by height above sea level. The record height of the lake was just over 4,211 feet in 1980s, but as of late August 2021, the lake is estimated to have dropped to around 4,190 feet. This is a decrease of about 20 feet, making the surface area of the shallow Great Salt Lake 44% smaller than it was in the 1980s.
So, what does it mean for wildlife as the lake gets smaller, and saltier?
Over 330 different species of birds use the lake and surrounding habitat for migration stopover points, and for breeding. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge alone sees 250 different species passing through by the millions each year.
Cooper Farr is the Director of Conservation at Tracy Aviary, a non-profit focused on avian conservation and outreach around the Great Salt Lake.
“Over 75% of Utah's wetlands are actually located within the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. So they're in this area that is surrounding the lake in this area, where the freshwater comes and meets the saltwater. And wetlands are really, really important for birds, especially as breeding areas for birds. So as water decreases, and you get a loss of some of these wetlands, it really impacts the birds that are relying on these areas to nest and to feed and to live throughout the year,” Farr said.
According to Farr, decreasing water levels can lead to a myriad of issues, including less food for wetland birds. Less food means fewer nestlings will hatch and the ones that do are less likely to survive. For migratory birds needing a boost in calories for their long journeys, a decrease in food can lead to mass die-off events.
“Lower water levels could concentrate birds in these areas and these kinds of remaining patches of wetlands. And so getting them really close together can also spread diseases,” Farr said.
When it comes to disease, crowding isn’t the only concern. As water levels decrease, water temperature increases, causing bacteria to grow and allowing diseases like avian botulism to thrive.
Farr also emphasized the fact that low water levels aren’t just a problem in Utah; the megadrought we are experiencing is widespread across the Western US. So, even though birds can fly to other areas, there aren’t suitable areas to go to.
“So many of these saline lakes, particularly in the West, are all being impacted. And we're seeing lower water levels at all of those, and in some cases, the birds that we have at Great Salt Lake now are there because their habitat and other places has already been lost,” Farr said.
Rich Hansen, manager of the Ogden Bay State Waterfowl Management Area expressed a similar fear.
“Well, it's just really scary with the Great Salt Lake reaching an all-time historic low this year. We have millions of ducks that migrate through Utah, and the Great Salt Lake is a very important part of that. So I'm afraid that, you know, a couple million birds might come and see that Bear River Bay is dry, Willard Spur is dry, Farmington Bay is dry, and they might continue on to California, find it dry too,” Hansen said.
Utah Public Radio is part of a statewide team of media, education, news, and non profit organizations through what's called The Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative. The collaborative will answer the question: During a time of drought, climate change and major population growth, how can Utah better support a critical body of water? The project is dedicated to vigorous reporting on Great Salt Lake and to seeking solutions that protect this state treasure in jeopardy. We will share stories and pool resources and work together to bring more awareness to the plight of Great Salt Lake and its future.
The collaborative is funded through a grant from the Knight Foundation via Solutions Journalism Network’s Local Media Project, whose goal is to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems.
Our members (listed alphabetically):
- Amplify Utah
- Deseret News
- Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College
- KSL NewsRadio
- Salt Lake City Public Library
- Salt Lake Community College Community Writing Center
- Salt Lake Tribune
- The West View
- Utah Film Center
- Utah Public Radio
- Utah State University researcher
This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.