Great Salt Lake’s demise spurs water emergency for Utah

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 10/12/2021 12:16 PM EST

Utah’s iconic Great Salt Lake hit a record low in July. Jeremy P. Jacobs/E&E News

Utah’s iconic Great Salt Lake, long neglected by regulators, is collapsing due to a historic drought and climate change.

And, in a cruel twist, the demise of the lake — which shriveled to a record low level in July — may threaten Utah’s posh ski towns and even the state’s water supply.

At issue: the "lake effect."

The sprawling Great Salt Lake doesn’t freeze in the winter due to its high salt content, so when some storms blow in, they collect the lake’s moisture, strengthen, then deliver extra snow to the Wasatch Mountains.

That snow is the lifeblood of ski towns like Alta and Snowbird, but it also contributes to water supply. Utah gets 95 percent of its water from snowpack.

Scientists say it’s unclear just how much the lake effect boosts the snowpack, but current research suggests it’s 5 to 8 percent.

But every snowflake matters in a drought. Utah has suffered a year of low precipitation, low snowpack and low soil moisture, so the snowmelt that has occurred has been absorbed by the ground and hasn’t flowed into reservoirs, which are currently 47 percent full.

The drought and water situation "is worse than we’ve seen," said Laura Haskell of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

At the same time, Utah’s population continues to grow. It has 3 million residents and counting — and two-thirds of them live near the Great Salt Lake.

Scientists who call the lake a "fuel gauge" for Utah’s water say the empty light is flashing.

"The trend is there: The lake is just continually drying," said Simon Wang of Utah State University. "That seems to be inevitable.”

The lake is demonstrating the cascading effects of climate change, all of which spell trouble for Utah. More frequent droughts mean less precipitation, and warmer temperatures mean more rain, less snowpack and increased water demand from farms.

At the same time, the shrinking Great Salt Lake is exposing a lake bed that emits dust, creating toxic air pollution in an area already afflicted with poor air quality. That dust also has an impact on snowpack. It settles on snow, making it darker and more apt to absorb sunlight quickly and melt faster — depleting the snowpack before runoff season.

"It’s like a spiraling effect," said Jordan Clayton, a Utah Snow Survey data collector for the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Great Salt Lake is frequently referred to as the "Great Sewer" because it is last in line to receive water. And the water that makes it to the lake is often contaminated with agricultural chemicals and other waste.

But the lake is vital to Utah’s ecology and economy. It is a critical rest stop for millions of migrating birds and serves a roughly $57-million-per-year brine shrimp harvesting industry.

Those factors plus its potential impact on air quality and snowpack have led some to push for renewed efforts to guarantee some clean water inflows for the lake in the face of climate change and drought.

In the past, those efforts have failed.

"It’s a barometer of climate change — a good example of the canary in the coal mine," said Jim Steenburgh of the University of Utah, who has studied the lake’s impact on water and snowpack.

"The lake is screaming at us right now."

New normal

In the 19th century, pioneers arrived at the Great Salt Lake finding a massive but shallow body of water whose size varied dramatically from 990 to 2,340 square miles. It’s America’s largest lake by surface area after the Great Lakes.

But salt makes the Great Salt Lake’s water undrinkable. And so it became an economic engine as mining interests began extracting minerals like magnesium and salt, and other industries used it as a dumping ground.

In the 1950s, a railroad causeway was built across the lake, effectively splitting it in two.

Researchers have a long record of water levels in the southern part of the lake, where most of the inflows occur. There, water flows from the main tributary, the Bear River, which provides 63 percent of the lake’s water flows.

Ryan Rowland of the U.S. Geological Survey said water level data dates to 1847.

This July, it hit the lowest level since 1963. And it has continued to fall due to low snowpack runoff. Usually, the lake rises from 1.5 to 2 feet every year. In good years, that part of the lake rises 4 feet.

This year: less than a foot.

That’s led experts to anxiously look ahead to next winter, and hope for a large snowpack that produces more runoff — something far from guaranteed.

"Snowpack — healthy, above-normal snowpacks — are critical for Great Salt Lake," Rowland said. "They just are."

Another poor snowpack year combined with a hot, dry summer could lead to another 3 feet of water-level decline in the lake next year, Rowland said.

But forecasters also warned that Utah needs more than just a good snowpack year; it needs an extraordinarily wet year to rise from drought conditions.

Over the past two years, Utah has racked up a precipitation deficit of nearly 15 inches, Clayton said. To get back to normal and recover, Utah has to get that on top of its average precipitation level, about 32 inches per year.

That means Utah would need between 40 and 50 percent more precipitation than usual to recover, he said, underscoring the dire situation the state is in.

Those factors have also translated into a new normal or average for the Great Salt Lake, said Laura Vernon of the Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Historically, the lake level has fluctuated, but its average elevation has been around 4,200 feet.

"My understanding is that average is history," Vernon said. "We are going to need to figure out how to adapt to some of those lower lake elevations."

Political hazards

This isn’t the first time scientists and conservationists have raised significant concerns about the lake and its impact on Utah’s growing population.

Five years ago, there was an effort to try to guarantee a lake level or take other measures due to concerns about effects of the declining lake level — and the dust from its contaminated and exposed lake bed — on the region’s air quality (Greenwire, July 11, 2016).

But efforts to secure a guaranteed lake level never got anywhere in the Utah Legislature, Vernon said.

"It’s politically charged," she said. "That’s the environmentalists’ way to manage the lake. That hasn’t been a well-received strategy to manage the lake."

Vernon said there is now an effort underway to try to guarantee at least some inflows into the lake.

"Now what people are focusing on are these smaller efforts to do what you are talking about — to ensure water gets to the lake," she said. "But it’s not this big magic number."

She noted that the impacts are not just on air quality and, potentially, water supply. Some research suggests a considerable increase in dust and its effect on snowpack could shorten Utah’s ski season by five to seven weeks.

Vernon said the situation at the Great Salt Lake shows the West needs to start reevaluating its relationship to water.

"The adaptation that needs to happen is we need to change the way we think about water in the West, what is important to us and where our values lie," she said, adding that there will be billions of dollars of health impacts and significant ecological consequences if the lake continues to shrink.

"If we know that now and we aren’t taking measures to rectify this, that’s on us and future generations that will struggle with it," she added. "People are starting to see that now."