Lake-effect drought? New study shows a shrinking Great Salt Lake may exacerbate Utah’s drought conditions

The study, published recently in the Journal of Hydrometeorology, utilized forecast models that found reductions in precipitation as the lake continued to decrease.

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A new study by scientists at Utah State University shows that a shrinking Great Salt Lake may exacerbate drought conditions along the entire Wasatch Front.

“As the Great Salt Lake water body is shrinking, that local precipitation caused by a storm event is going to decrease,” Dr. Wei Zhang, an associate professor of climate science at USU and one of the study’s authors, told FOX 13 News on Monday.

Using a series of meteorological models as a case study, USU researchers found that, in essence, the shrinking Great Salt Lake can create its own vicious cycle of drought.

“So this is going to trigger a negative feedback,” Dr. Zhang explained. “As the water body decreases, that precipitation decreases in the Great Salt Lake Basin. That shrinks the water body. Then the precipitation decreases.”

The study, published recently in the Journal of Hydrometeorology, utilized forecast models that found reductions in precipitation as the lake continued to decrease.

“In general, if the lake goes 100% to 0%, in other words it completely dries up, there will be a 50% reduction in convective precipitation primarily along the Wasatch Front but southeast of Great Salt Lake. In other words, Salt Lake City,” said Dr. Robert Gillies, the head of the Utah Climate Center at USU and the state climatologist.

(Hongping Gu | Utah State University)

The Great Salt Lake is famous for its ability to amplify storms. “Lake-effect snow” can pump out more snow in the mountains and boost Utah’s lucrative ski industry (95% of Utah’s drinking water supply also comes from snowpack). But the USU study is another dire warning of what can happen when the lake shrinks.

“I think it’s really important to keep the water level in the Great Salt Lake at a healthy level, so we can have more precipitation in the Great Salt Lake Basin and avoid triggering that negative feedback that the shrinking water body can further reduce precipitation,” Dr. Zhang said.

The Great Salt Lake dropped to its lowest level in recorded history in 2022, impacted by water diversion, drought and a changing climate. That has sparked a rallying cry with the public and political leaders on Utah’s Capitol Hill have reacted, spending over $1 billion and passing a series of bills on water conservation measures. Thanks to back-to-back winters, the lake itself has risen about six-and-a-half feet (but it remains several feet below the start of what is considered an ecologically healthy range).

Environmental groups have called the USU study’s findings “alarming.”

“This research underscores the urgency of the situation and the need to get the lake to a healthy level quickly. The findings show that the longer we wait, the harder it will be to save the lake and preserve the health of northern Utah because precipitation will continue to diminish in a negative feedback loop and the situation will continue to get worse,” said Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is a part of a lawsuit against the state of Utah over its handling of the Great Salt Lake.

“We need to stop talking about lake evaporation as a ‘loss’ or ‘water use.’ It is the source of our rain and snow,” Dr. Ben Abbott, a founder of the group Grow the Flow, posted about the study on X.

Dr. Gillies said climate studies are pointing toward a trend of hotter temperatures in Utah, which underscores the need for water conservation and measures protecting the Great Salt Lake. It is important ecologically, but also economically for Utah.

“We have to be much more careful in the way we use water, right?” he told FOX 13 News. “And our water resources. They are finite and they can’t be drained. My advice would be start to think about being in a drier environment and think about water consumption.”