Saving the Drying Great Salt Lake

Welcome to the Great Salt Lake. It is the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere—the eighth largest in the world. The Great Salt Lake is home to a unique (quirky, even) selection of plants and animals. Ten million birds from 338 different species make an annual pilgrimage to the Great Salt Lake to rest, fatten up on brine flies and shrimp and breed before they continue their long migrations south. The Jordan, Weber and Bear Rivers feed the terminal lake and deposit millions of tons of salts and minerals, supporting the industries that mine the lake for magnesium and sulfate of potash and harvest brine shrimp. With swimming, boating and biking on its islands and shorelines, the lake affords the curious opportunities for recreation and sightseeing. It is the namesake for the Salt Lake Valley, inspiring songs, poetry and great works of art. It is the stubborn, salty remnant of the monstrous ancient Lake Bonneville that once covered 20,000 square miles 15,000 years ago. And it’s in trouble.

Dr. Bonnie Baxter collects specimen samples from the Great Salt Lake as she has for the last 25 years. One of her collection sites is at Spiral Jetty, a coil of basalt rock built by sculptor Robert Smithson in 1970. Early in her career, Baxter had to use a canoe to reach Spiral Jetty. Years later, she would slosh to Spiral Jetty in her waders. Now, she walks over dry lakebed crust. Spiral Jetty has not moved, but the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake has—about a mile away. 

Photo by Adam Finkle

“It’s normal for the lake to fluctuate up and down, but now we don’t see much of a change at all,” says Baxter, a professor of biology and director of The Great Salt Lake Institute (GSLI) at Westminster College. “Normally, we have some protection from it getting too dry—like the recharge from a decent snowpack—but there’s nothing to fall back on right now. It’s not able to bounce back after a really dry year. I think that’s my biggest concern.” 

On July 3, 2022, the southern portion of the Great Salt Lake dropped below the historic low for average daily elevation (a record of 4,190.2 feet set in October 2021). “This is not the type of record we like to break,” announced Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry when the lake reached its record low. “It’s clear the lake is in trouble.”

Big trouble. Recent research has identified the causes and what will happen if the lake dries up. To say that the fallout from its desiccation would be nigh-apocalyptic is not an exaggeration. Now that we know, the focus of efforts has changed to discovering what we can do to save the Great Salt Lake before it is too late. 

Why is the Great Salt Lake Drying Up?

To get to the heart of the issue, researchers, environmental advocates, policymakers and other interested parties, came together for the first-ever Great Salt Lake Summit at the Davis Conference Center in January of this year. Experts discussed the impacts of the receding lake and who or what is to blame. 

A seemingly unending Western megadrought—the worst drought in 1,200 years—certainly plays a role in the dwindling of The Great Salt Lake. That the drought is solely to blame has been the public perception for some time, but it is only part of the story. “Drought is contributing to the drop but a bigger issue right now is our water-use policies,” Dr. Kevin Perry, a professor and chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, tells the audience at the Great Salt Lake Summit. Research out of Utah State University, presented at the Summit, found that an ongoing drought is responsible for decreasing water levels by about 5.5 feet. Utah’s water demands, however, has diverted 39% of the lake’s inflow, dropping its level by 11 feet and decreasing the volume of the lake by half.

In short, we are diverting the water before it ever has a chance to reach the Great Salt Lake. As to where that water is going instead, municipal and industrial demands account for only 11% of the Wasatch Front’s water consumption. Agriculture accounts for 63% of water use in the Wasatch Front and closer to 80% of total water diversions in the state. 

Utah also uses more water than other states. Utah’s public supply customers use the most water per capita in the U.S., and Utah residents use more domestic water per capita than residents of other Southwest States, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Abundant water use could also be the result of the cheap water rates paid by Utah consumers compared to other states. And, as it stands, the demand for water will only increase with Utah’s population.  

“Growth is another daunting consideration,” says Great Salt Lake Coordinator Laura Vernon. Utah’s population is projected to increase by 2.2 million by 2060 and most of that growth is expected to happen along the Wasatch Front. “The population continues to explode and we’re one of the driest states in the nation. We need to act like it,” says Vernon. “We can’t keep using water the way we have been.”

Life Without the Great Salt Lake?

It starts with a mobile phone alert. “National Weather Service: High Wind Warning for Salt Lake County. Sustained, strong winds with even stronger gusts are happening. Seek shelter.” The mobile phone chimes again. “National Weather Service: Dust Storm Warning for Salt 

Lake County. Visibility of 1/2 mile or less due to blowing dust or sand, and wind speeds of 30 miles an hour or more.” Before the NWS alerts clear from the phone’s screen, another notification appears. “Latest air quality forecast from Utah Department of Environmental Quality: Red.” 

Through the window of the downtown office building, a dingy cloud rises to the northwest and consumes Salt Lake City in a few short minutes. Over the distant howl of the wind, a hum fills the space as the building’s air filtration system kicks on. 

Masks and respirators are pulled over faces. Some wear full-face gas masks, breathing clean air cycled through an expandable/collapsible hose. Others wear homemade fabric masks retrofitted with HEPA filters sliced from their home AC unit’s air filter. A YouTube how-to video has been making the rounds the last few weeks. (“A fun craft to do with the kids!”)

The storm lasts only a moment, but the wind leaves behind a fine coat of tan grime on the city. Playa dust sticks to everything and gets everywhere. All of the shaking, vacuuming and scrubbing will not rid the dust from clothes, carpets, cars, hair, skin or nail beds. The moment you start to believe all of the dust is finally gone is the moment you’ll find more hiding in a shoe, pocket or shirt crease. 

Worse yet is what lingers in the dust and penetrates the lungs and bloodstream: a mishmash of fine particulate matter, including arsenic. In this bleak future, most people can recite by heart the health impacts of inhaling the stuff every time the wind blows to the southeast. In the short term, difficulty breathing, headaches and sore throat. In the long term, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, skin cancer and bladder cancer.

This terrifying future is not a reality. Not yet. 

Among his endeavors, Dr. Kevin Perry studies lakebed crust. “Crust is our friend. Crust prevents the dust from being liberated from the surface,” he says. There are about 800 miles of exposed lakebed around the Great Salt Lake and about 25% of the lakebed is actively eroding away and turning into dust sources. Dr. Perry set out to determine whether or not the contents of the dust were harmful, using the EPA’s Regional Screening Levels as the measurement of repeated exposure for “potential contaminants of concern.” As far as the dust around the Great Salt Lake is concerned, largely naturally occurring arsenic is the element that poses the most risk for human health. “Here’s the scary part,” Perry says. “Every single measurement of arsenic I took exceeded the EPA’s Regional Screening Levels, not only for residents but industrial workers, which is a higher standard.” 

Utah already has air quality issues, particularly in the winter with inversion trapping PM 2.5s and PM 10s and in the summer with ozone. Dust predominantly gets kicked up in spring and fall, meaning Wasatch Front residents would lose their only window of good air quality, should the lake continue to dry up.

A desiccated Great Salt Lake would also spell disaster for Utah’s snow and ski season and not just for the obvious reason of eliminating lake effect snow. In a state known for The Greatest Snow on Earth, which attracts 4.5 million visitors every year and adds $1.4 billion to the economy, this is typically when alarm bells start going off (if the potential for inhaling dangerous levels of arsenic wasn’t enough). Lake effect accounts for about 5-10% of annual snowfall in the Wasatch Mountains, and every inch of snow makes a difference. Snowmelt provides 80% of surface water resources for both agriculture and domestic water use. To have enough water in our reservoirs, we need a strong snowpack that melts slowly and consistently over time, and the increased dust could mess with that.

Great Salt Lake Drying

Dr. MacKenzie Skiles is a hydrologist at the University of Utah who has studied the impact of dust on snow for nearly a decade. After a dust storm, dust sticks to the snow’s surface. Because the dust is darker than snow, it absorbs more solar radiation, which causes the snow to melt faster. Skiles documented a single dust event in 2017 that accelerated the snowmelt by one week. That’s one less week of snow in a season. Should dust storms become more frequent, Skiles points to the San Juan Mountains in Southwestern Colorado as an example. The dust deposition in the San Juans is so extreme some seasons it advances snowmelt by up to two months. 

The ecology of the lake is teetering on disaster as well. “As the lake shrinks, there’s less water and that means the salt gets more concentrated,” says Dr. Baxter. Water evaporates. Salt does not. “Right now, we’re at 17.1% salt in the south arm of the lake, which I’ve never seen since I’ve been studying it,” says Baxter. “Everything that lives in the lake has a favored salinity and a cut-off where its biology can’t handle the salt anymore.” For instance, the microbialites in the Great Salt Lake start dying off once the salt content is above 16%. The algae in the water columns are also getting too salty. Brine shrimp and flies depend on the algae and microbialites. And millions of birds depend on them. For 10 million migratory birds, the Great Salt Lake is the most important body of water for them to rest and eat up and get fat as they migrate. “The ecosystem is becoming shaky and you worry about the whole system collapsing,” says Baxter.

The ripple effects of a collapsing ecosystem don’t stop at migratory birds. The brine shrimp co-op distributes what’s harvested from the Great Salt Lake throughout the world as fish food, including food for shrimp (the kind people eat). The lake produces 40% of the world’s brine shrimp eggs. “There are industries out there on the lake making products that are very connected to our lives,” says Vernon. “100% of the magnesium used in manufacturing in the U.S. comes from the lake. All soda cans have magnesium in them.” All told, The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council says the lake contributes $1.3 billion to Utah’s economy each year and provides over 7,700 jobs. The lower water levels could cost the economy up to $32 billion.

What Are We Doing?

Laura Vernon, as the State’s coordinator for the Great Salt Lake, has the immense responsibility of getting all of the pertinent stakeholders and agencies working together, balancing competing interests and mandates, on lake-related initiatives. It also gives her a birds-eye view of all the interconnected moving parts involved in any effort to change the future of the Great Salt Lake and the vast scope of meeting the current challenge. “It’s such a complex resource,” she says. In addition to coordinating all of the Department of Natural Resources divisions that work with the lake (there are nine), she works with the staff of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, which informs the executive branch on lake-related policy,  mining, shrimping and recreation industries, upstream water users and federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. 

Great Salt Lake Drying
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Speaker Brad Wilson (R-Kaysville) tour the Great Salt Lake by airboat to see firsthand the implications of the receding lake, touring Bear River inflows, Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, and Farmington Bay. Photo courtesy Utah reps

Getting all of the various entities working together might seem an impossible task, but Vernon says at least the momentum is in their favor. “As the saying goes, never let a good crisis go to waste.” And when the lake hit a new low, it started getting attention. “People are interested and invested and willing to work,” she says. “But there isn’t a silver bullet to fix the lake.” Rather, State leaders and representatives are taking the throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach. Perhaps because there is no apparent silver bullet, there’s also a lot of money being thrown around. “This past legislative session—many people call it the year of water,” says Vernon. “I call it ‘the year of the Great Salt Lake.’”

The State legislature passed a number of bills addressing the Great Salt Lake watershed. The Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program (H.B. 410) creates a $40 million trust, tasking the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands with increasing water flow into the lake, among other things. Integrated Great Salt Lake Watershed Assessment (H.B. 429), along with a $5 million budget allocation, mandates that the Division of Water Resources study the five watersheds that feed the Great Salt Lake and create a watershed assessment by 2027 with the intent of guiding future action with science. To address the dust, one bill allocates $115,600 one-time and $141,300 in ongoing annual funding to enforce laws banning motorized vehicles from driving on the Great Salt Lake (ATVs destroy the lakebed crust, thus accelerating the liberation of more dust). 

Other bills and budget items require water conservation at state facilities, allocate $875,000 for a multi-year study of waterbirds (Gunnison Island is home to one of few pelican breeding colonies, now in peril), appropriate $200 million in grants for secondary water meters and require water use and preservation plans to be part of municipal and county general plans. 

As of yet, we haven’t seen any mandatory water conservation requirements for residents or industries, but we are seeing more incentives, like $5 million allocated for statewide grass rebate programs like Flip the Strip, and water-wise educational campaigns like Slow The Flow and H2Oath. While participation in these programs is voluntary, Dr. Baxter says she’s seeing that people want to be part of the Great Salt Lake solution. She advises, “stay in touch with your representatives and do what you can in your own water sphere. Every little action really is going to matter.” 

As most of the water diverted from the Great Salt Lake goes to agricultural uses, the Utah legislature appropriated $50 million (in addition to $20 million in 2021, following the creation of the Agricultural Water Optimization Task Force in 2018) to find ways to reduce and optimize agricultural water use, such as grants for farmers to update inefficient irrigation systems.

On the federal level, Senator Mitt Romney introduced the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act, which creates a $10 million program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to monitor and assess the water availability and conditions of saline lakes in the Great Basin, including the Great Salt Lake.

Not every idea has gotten traction. Notably, there was a proposal to create a 700-mile pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake. “We need to start considering how long some of these projects would take,” says Vernon. “It could take decades for a project like that to get underway and the lake could be in pretty poor shape by then.”

Moving forward, Vernon says the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council is looking at studies on conservation impacts, so they would know how much water needs to be conserved to put off the Bear River Development project, which would divert even more water from the Great Salt Lake to support the booming population in Northern Utah. Even if we’re able to stave off disaster now, we’ll still need long-term policies in place to make sure the lake doesn’t end up here again. “It’s not a one-and-done thing,” says Vernon. “This isn’t an issue that is going away. We’re in it for the long term to protect the lake.” 

Time will tell if these efforts will be enough to improve the health of the Great Salt Lake, but there is some hope to go around. “I am optimistic,” says Baxter. “Seeing politicians, agencies and researchers come together to work toward the same solution: getting water into the lake. We need to work together on this—scientists, the public and their representatives—to solve a problem of this magnitude. People understand the gravity of the situation.”

All of the attention and momentum around the Great Salt Lake right now has also reminded Utahns about the significance of the lake, not just to the ecosystem, ski season or economy, but to Utah’s culture and identity. “I’m hearing from people all over the state of Utah, as the devastating consequences come to the surface,” says Baxter. “People are telling me what the lake means to them and how they are connecting to the lake in a different way.” After all, what is Salt Lake City without the Great Salt Lake?  

Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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