New research from the University of Utah reveals how dust from the dry Great Salt Lake bed is picked up by wind and deposited on snowfields in the Wasatch Mountains. That dust hastens the snowmelt, which reduces the mountain snowpack.
That reduced snowpack means less melted snow flowing out of the canyons and, eventually, to the lake.
Less water in the lake exposes more lake bed, meaning even more dust can be picked up to melt even more snowpack. Meanwhile, the smaller lake will produce fewer “lake effect” storms, further reducing the snow that falls in the first place.
U. Geography Assistant Professor McKenzie Skiles, the study’s principal investigator, says the cycle could eventually dry up the lake entirely. “The Great Salt Lake doesn’t have any protections; there is no minimum lake level,”
In other words, the lake is in a death spiral.
It is remarkable to consider that only 32 years ago the lake was threatening to inundate Rose Park. The state spent $60 million on pumps to pull water out of the lake and spill it into the West Desert. But the lake began a decades-long decline shortly after the pumps went in.
Since then it has dropped 15 feet, and the surface now covers less than half the area it once did. Those pumps are miles from water.
The lake generates more than $1 billion in direct economic activity, but that’s minor compared to its environmental importance. This seemingly dead puddle in the desert is, in fact, the backbone of life in Utah.
If there is one obvious caution from Skiles’ research, it is that further diverting the lake’s sources looks like a loser’s bet. In a state whose history is built on irrigation, we are reaching the max. More dams on the lake’s primary northern source — the Bear River — have been on the table for decades. Now it looks like they could ultimately produce less water, not more.
In fact, the focus now should be on getting more water to the lake, not the other way around. That will require a changed mindset from political leaders and some creativity from farmers and water managers.
For years Utah has tackled its population growth with both water development and water conservation. Going forward, conservation becomes the dominant tool. Water users big and small literally will have to suck it up.
We need to feed the lake so the lake feeds us.