Can the Great Salt Lake be saved?

Rep. Blake Moore and Sen. Mitt Romney are behind bills to conserve saline waters in the West before they become environmental and health disasters.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An unusual sight emerges from the shallow waters of the Great Salt Lake as a “reef” pops into view between Saltair and Antelope Island on July 10, 2021, as extreme drought conditions impact the lake. Two Utah congressman are working to conserve saline waters, including the lake, throughout the West before they become environmental and public health disasters.

The Great Salt Lake hit a record low this year, but it’s not the only salty lake that’s drying up.

Utah Rep. Blake Moore, a Republican, teamed up with California’s Rep. Jared Huffman to introduce the “Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act” last week. The bipartisan legislation directs the U.S. Geological Survey to “to assess, monitor and benefit the hydrology” of terminal water systems in the region, along with the habitat they provide for waterfowl and other wildlife. It would authorize $25 million over five years for the program, during a critical period where climate change is accelerating their decline.

The Great Salt Lake is an ecological and economic engine, Moore noted in a news release. It generates $1.3 billion each year in Utah through the brine shrimp industry, mineral harvesting and tourism. More than 10 million birds use the lake annually to nest, feed and stage for regional migration.

“But today, its water levels are at their lowest in recorded history, leading to a loss of habitat, decreased water flows, and air quality issues,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, saline lakes in Great Basin states are facing these same challenges.”

Salty lakes have long been withering due to drought and human diversions, and the National Audubon Society has sounded the alarm over their loss for years. In 2017, the bird advocacy group issued a study that found more than half of the arid West’s saline systems have shrunk by 50% to 95% over the past 150 years.

“It’s great news to have that kind of level of attention being paid to saline lakes across the West, including Great Salt Lake,” said Marcelle Shoop, director of Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program in an interview Friday. “Its time has come.”

A trend of decline

While the Great Salt Lake grabbed headlines this summer for dwindling to an all-time low, Moore’s bill would also attempt to rescue saline waters such as Oregon’s Lake Albert, Nevada’s Lahontan Wetlands and California’s Salton Sea and Mono Lake. These ecosystems serve as an interconnected web in the Great Basin, providing unique and vital habitats for migrating birds.

And it’s not just the birds who are in trouble. Terminal lakes like the Great Salt Lake become salty because they have no outlet. Water only leaves the system through evaporation, leaving minerals — and sometimes dangerous contaminants from human activities like mining — behind to become concentrated over time. What’s left behind can become toxic dust when the water disappears.

Owens Lake, also in California, offers a cautionary tale of what can happen when terminal lakes are allowed to dry up. The lake became desiccated in the 1920s after its tributaries were tapped and diverted to Los Angeles, resulting in an air pollution disaster that has cost California residents more than $2 billion to mitigate.

Blowing particulates from the dry lakebed caused health issues for the 40,000 people living nearby. By comparison, Owens Lake is about one-sixth the size of Great Salt Lake, and Salt Lake County alone has a population of more than 1 million.

Moore’s saline lakes bill serves as a companion bill to legislation introduced in the Senate this spring. That bill, S. 1466, is co-sponsored by Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican, along with Democratic senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Jacky Rosen of Nevada.

“This legislation should complement and help elevate the work already being done by the State of Utah,” Romney said in a news release last May, “to understand this key resource and the role it plays as part of the larger landscape.”

The bills don’t meddle with existing water rights, interstate water compacts or future water developments. Instead, the proposed program helmed by USGS would focus on science, Shoop said, to help state governments and stakeholders understand saline lakes’ interconnectivity and ensure their longevity.

“When you’ve got waterbodies like this, the water is managed very locally,” Shoop said.

It’s not clear whether the legislation will work its way through the gridlock of Congress, however, especially as lawmakers focus their attention on the coronavirus pandemic, an infrastructure bill pushed by President Joe Biden and whether to keep the federal government open.

Still, Lynn de Freitas with FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake said she’s encouraged.

“Hallelujah,” de Freitas said of Moore’s bill. “Any opportunity we have to learn about saline lakes is to our benefit.”

People often brush off changes in saline lake elevations due to their capricious natures, de Freitas said. The Great Salt Lake hit its last record low in 1963, only to hit a record high and cause major flooding two decades later.

But USGS data shows that despite these ups and downs, the long-term trend of the Great Salt Lake is one of decline. Such is the case with other terminal waters in the West.

With climate change, “the range of impacts and the recovering from these trends is more substantial,” de Freitas said. “It’s more imperative that we look for responsible ways to address this system.”

Because the Great Salt Lake is the largest terminal lake in the Western Hemisphere, it’s also playing an outsized role as other saline waters shrink and vanish.

“Nothing should hold us back from taking progressive steps,” de Freitas said.

‘It’s pretty bleak out there’

Despite its hemispheric importance, John Luft with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources called the lake’s current state “dismal.”

“There are fewer birds for sure. There just is no water in the main bays like Bear River, Farmington and Ogden Bay,” Luft said. “Even the brine shrimp are doing some weird things.”

Brine shrimp produce live young in the warmer months, which grow to adults that migrating birds eat. In cooler months, the shrimp produce egg-like cysts that fishermen harvest to sell as food for the farm-raised shrimp humans eat. But Luft said the brine shrimp aren’t reproducing, which is something he’s never seen before.

Cyst counts are high, Luft said, but he’s not sure how viable they’ll be.

“It seems like they’ve kind of hit a stagnant level,” Luft said. “I’ve never seen them like that.”

Waterfowl season is also set to begin this week, and Luft said with the lake’s bays and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge nearly dry, hunters shouldn’t count on a great season.

“It’s pretty bleak out there right now,” Luft said.