Scientists say the Great Salt Lake is disappearing, but could Utah residents save it?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water levels on the Great Salt Lake have been dramatically receding as seen near Antelope Island and research further confirms that humans are responsible for the decline. Scientists, advocates and water managers weigh in on what needs to be done to reverse the course of history. Saving the lake is possible, they say, but it won't be easy.

Modern civilization has significantly reduced the size of the Great Salt Lake, but the authors of a new study remain optimistic that a cultural shift on the Wasatch Front could still save it.

Since the Mormon pioneers arrived in 1847, Utah’s top landmark has shrunk to half its historic size, according to the study published in October in the journal Nature Geoscience. Most of that decline can be attributed to human water use, the researchers at Utah State University say — but that means humans could reverse the trend, too.

It doesn’t mean that will be easy.

The lake’s size fluctuates naturally, with seasonal and long-term weather patterns, according to Wayne Wurtsbaugh, lead author on the study and a professor emeritus of watershed science at USU. When the Wasatch Front experiences drought, lake levels drop and they rise when there’s flooding, as they did during the early 1980s.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A family walks along the shore of the Great Salt Lake on Antelope Island, Monday, as seen on September 15, 2014.

But the lake has been on a 160-year decline, data suggest — a trend that Wurtsbaugh and colleagues attribute almost wholly to humans taking water out of rivers and streams that once fed the Great Salt Lake for use in homes, farms and industries.

“There are big ups and downs,” the USU scientist said, “but the long-term trend is down.”

Yet Wurtsbaugh said the Great Salt Lake hasn’t shrunk beyond the point of no return, as have other saline lakes like Iran’s Lake Urmia and California’s Owens Lake.

“We’re not at a critical point … where they’ve lost kind of everything,” he said. “We’re in much better shape than some of these lakes.”

(Interactive from Google Earth Engine) The above time lapse shows changes to Utah’s Great Salt Lake between 1984 and 2016. Press play or select a year to see how the lake has shrunk over the past 32 years.

The growing problem

Based on historical observations, the “average” level of the lake is said to be 4,200 feet above sea level. But with all the modern-era water development upstream, the lake currently hovers between 4,195 and 4,196 feet above sea level with normal weather, said Craig Miller, an engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resources and a study co-author with Wurtsbaugh.

Water is, of course, a finite resource. So while the state has lots of ways it could restore that five feet of depth and bring the Great Salt Lake back to its former levels, all involve trade-offs — making it unlikely, some say, that Utahns can have their lake and drink it, too.

Take water conservation. Utah’s official numbers on its water use are sketchy, but Wurtsbaugh and others believe Utahns use far more water than their counterparts in other population centers in arid Southwestern states, such as Las Vegas and Tucson.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A flooded field next to the Bear River, near Corinne, as seen May 19, 2017.

But even if Beehive State residents abandoned their “extravagant ways,” Wurtsbaugh said, water savings would likely be offset by the region’s rapid growth, which state analysts believe could push Utah’s population from 3.1 million today to 5.1 million by 2040.

In that scenario, even if all Utahns reduced their water use by 10 percent, usage would still continue to rise.

“This unbridled population growth,” Wurstbaugh said, “is a really difficult problem.”

That doesn’t mean Utahns should write off conservation. Reduced water use has helped delay the need for large water-development projects in Utah — including the $1.5 billion Bear River Project — which, once constructed, would permanently divert water from the Great Salt Lake. Both scientists said they believed preventing development is key to reversing water loss on the lake.

“If you increase water use upstream,” Miller said, “it’s hard to [later] tell those people, ‘No, you can’t use that water anymore.’ It’s kind of sticky that way. Lowering water use is a difficult thing.”

The Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, a water wholesaler in the Weber and Ogden areas, has launched an aggressive conservation campaign in hopes of avoiding having to tap into the Bear River. The effort has included installing thousands of meters on secondary water systems, which are typically used to irrigate lawns and gardens.

To Tage Flint, executive director of the district, conservation is the preferred alternative to spending billions on huge water projects. “Water conservation is expensive,” Flint said, “but it is our next large water development project in our district.”

While advocating for expanding existing conservation, Zachary Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council, adds that wiser approaches to land-use planning that reduce urban sprawl could go even further in easing water consumption as the state grows, with potential to greatly improve Utah’s water budget — and the Great Salt Lake with it.

Greener space, drier lake

But it isn’t a given that conserving alone would bring back the lake, according to Miller. While conservation can help defer spending on new dam and pipeline construction, flushing your toilet less often and showering more quickly doesn’t mean more water will reach the lake. Conservation, in Miller’s view, “just extends the amount of water providers can give to other folks.”

And the way you conserve water is important, Wurtsbaugh said.

Some water use isn’t considered “consumptive” — toilets and showers, for example — because the water flows into a sewer and on to a wastewater treatment plant. On the Wasatch Front, 71 percent of wastewater is cleaned up and then deposited into the Great Salt Lake.

“That contributes to huge algal blooms in Farmington Bay,” Wurtsbaugh said, “but it is a significant part of the water budget.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A xeriscaped yard in Salt Lake City, featuring rocks and drought-resistant plants to reduce water usage.

Consumptive water use, on the other hand, takes water out of the system. When water is sprinkled on lawns or croplands, for example, much of it will evaporate or be absorbed by plants, preventing it from recirculating.

If Utahns really wanted to help the Great Salt Lake, Wurtsbaugh and Miller agreed, they would re-landscape their yards, replacing lawns with more drought-resistant plants and rocks to reduce water use.

That will require a significant cultural shift, but Wurtsbaugh believes it’s doable.

“People are willing to change,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight — I have to admit that I have been planning to xeriscape my yard for 20 years and finally got it done this summer. We’re all a bit slow to get aboard where we need to go.”

Thirsty crops

The more difficult challenge in Utah, Wurtsbaugh said, will be agriculture.

Farming is, generally speaking, a consumptive use of water that diverts a far greater share than most residences and businesses. Even if all homeowners on the Wasatch Front xeriscaped their yards, Miller said, there wouldn’t be enough additional water to restore the Great Salt Lake without changes in the state’s farm sector.

Technology and improved farming practices could help some growers conserve more water, but Wurtsbaugh said the hot, dry conditions typical of Utah summers require a baseline of water use to grow profitable crops.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Marty Alston fires up the tractor at one of their plots of farm land in Draper. Marty and his wife, MaryAnn Alston, are an urban farming family, planting more than 200 varieties of vegetables from arugula to zucchini on plots in Murray, Draper, Holladay and West Valley City.

“So we probably can’t expand agriculture and save the Great Salt Lake,” he said.

Utah’s farmers could shift to less water-intensive crops. Many currently produce alfalfa, which tends to be a thirsty crop, even compared to foodstuffs such as corn, peas or beets, which use significantly less water, Miller said.

But to make that switch, farmers would need access to processing facilities that no longer exist in Utah. “We don’t have sugar beet factories. We don’t have vegetable processing here anymore,” Miller said. “There’s a whole infrastructure you would need in order to shift cropping.”

There have been proposals for environmentalists and other interested parties to pay farmers to not use their water and instead let it flow into the lake, allowing growers to make money while also keeping their water rights. Such arrangements have been used to great effect elsewhere, but Utah law makes them difficult, if not impossible, Wurtsbaugh said.

Some argue for greater public involvement on water issues to put pressure on elected officials to give ecosystems such as the Great Salt Lake more weight in Utah’s legal system.

“How can we modernize the water appropriations law to include natural systems … to make water available for systems like the Great Salt Lake?” asked Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Great Salt Lake.

“We have to kind of elevate the lake” by making the Great Salt Lake part of the conversation about water, de Freitas said, giving it “a more prominent position than perhaps it ever had.”

Diverting a death spiral

Agriculture isn’t the only industry with a large impact on the Great Salt Lake, Miller said. Mineral extraction companies also mine it by pumping its saline waters into evaporation ponds and harvesting crystals left behind for salts, magnesium and potassium.

While these industries need water to operate, they also tend to ramp up production during dry conditions — which, Miller said, isn’t helpful for the lake. In fact, he said, it could contribute to a death spiral he believes could occur if the Great Salt Lake became too shallow.

With adequate rainfall on the Wasatch Front, Miller said, the lake could probably maintain its current condition. But when the weather is abnormally hot and dry, water loss from the Great Salt Lake accelerates.

(File photo courtesy of Nilauro Markus) Evaporation ponds at the Great Salt Lake's Stansbury Island.

Hot, dry weather hastens evaporation, which on its own disrupts the water balance on the lake. But it’s also why extraction industries pull more water in dry conditions; evaporation is good for business.

Agriculture — as well as lawns and gardens — also uses more water when the temperature climbs. Not only does evaporation increase, reducing the amount of irrigation water that actually makes it to the ground, but plants also need more water to survive hot weather.

These factors could combine and cause the lake to shrink rapidly, Miller said, especially if the lake’s already short on water.

“Hopefully, we can get the lake up,” Miller said, “as kind of a safety margin.”

In its current state, if the Wasatch Front were to experience the kind of persistent, 60-year drought that tree-ring studies suggest have happened in the past, it could decimate the lake in short order, Miller said.

Among “weather, climate change and our continued use of the water upstream,” he said, “if you get a really dry patch, the lake will go even lower than it’s gone so far. And if that happens, there will be negative consequences that people are trying to identify right now.”

Lake of many uses

Studies of the demise of other saline lakes suggest some dire possibilities.

Dust storms from a dried Great Salt Lake are a deep concern, given that decades of heavy metals and other toxic substances have built up and remain trapped in the lake’s sediment. Releasing those into the atmosphere, Miller said, would be bad.

But while the lake’s potential impact on air quality has received some public attention, it’s not the only consequence Utah would suffer if it lost the landmark.

Bird populations that depend on the lake would likely struggle. Miller pointed to islands that once harbored countless birds. Today, the lake’s low water levels have allowed predators to reach habitats such as Antelope Island, reducing populations to a few hundred individuals in some cases.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Pelicans on the Great Salt Lake in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, as seen in May 2012.

Brine shrimp, harvested from the Great Salt Lake and sold as fish food, would disappear if the lake shrank enough. Industries that extract minerals from the lake would also likely close, reducing the availability of essential ingredients in many fertilizers and lightweight metals.

Even if you don’t care for birds or clean air, de Freitas said, these industries add $1.3 billion to Utah’s annual economy. “And to think you could just write that off is fiscally irresponsible,” she said.

Low water levels, de Freitas said, have already prevented some of these businesses from investing to expand their operations.

“The overarching issue is the fact that we have a lot at stake,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll come to a responsible consensus in a timely manner, so we don’t have to look back and say ‘Wow, we missed the boat on the Great Salt Lake.’ ”