Today’s Great Salt Lake bears little resemblance to how it’s depicted on maps, which show a familiar blue footprint spreading across northwest Utah.
The maps conceal the urgency of our water woes by drowning out how climate change and allocation issues have impacted one of the West’s iconic bodies of water.
The Salt Lake Tribune and AccuWeather will update their Utah maps to show the lake as it really is, a puddle of its former self, rimmed by vast reaches of exposed lake bed.
“The need to redefine the boundaries of the Great Salt Lake is a striking reminder of the profound impact of record-low water levels to the delicate and complex ecology of the Great Salt Lake and its wide-ranging importance to the people and economy of Utah,” said AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter. “AccuWeather is committed to accurately depicting the boundaries of lakes to highlight the impact of climate change on our changing world.”
The familiar maps usually show the lake’s outline when its surface is at 4,200 feet above sea level, which happens to be the optimal level for the lake’s ecological health, says Laura Vernon, the Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
“This is the historic average,” she said, “but we are rewriting history.”
In July, the lake level sank below its lowest level on record and has kept dipping, although Utah’s wet fall eased the trend.
At his monthly news conference Thursday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox emphasized the lake’s importance and previewed upcoming legislation aimed at water conservation.
”From a health perspective, from an economic perspective, from an environmental perspective, the Great Salt Lake is a national treasure and must remain so. It’s not just the Great Salt Lake. It’s the Colorado River Basin, it’s all our lakes and streams and [water] storage capacity in the state,” he said. “This is an all-hands-on-deck issue.”
The lake today sits at 4,190.6 feet above sea level, or nearly 10 feet lower than what’s typical, and is holding 7.7 million acre feet of water, about half the historic average. Its briny water covers about 937 square miles, leaving nearly 763 square miles dry, according to DNR’s matrix of the lake’s dimensions keyed to surface elevation.
Virtually all weather-forecasting services use maps that depict the lake in its historic state, including the National Weather Service, an agency that represents the gold standard for government science. Its online point-and-click map gives users four options for viewing the landscape. Only the satellite option shows the Great Salt Lake accurately.
The Great Salt Lake receives runoff into a terminal basin where evaporation has concentrated the water’s salinity far beyond what is found in the ocean. Because it cannot be used as a water source and does not harbor fish, the lake has not historically been valued, despite its bounty of ecological, cultural and geological wonders.
It is teeming with life, from microbes that thrive in extreme environments, to insects and tiny shrimp, to millions of migratory birds at the top of a complicated food web. Pelicans, phalaropes, grebes, avocets and dozens of other species flock to the lake’s shores to nest or rest during their biannual journeys.
The lake’s dropping levels are changing the water’s chemistry and exposing miles of bioherms, or microbialities, the strange mounds built by microbial organisms that support a large share of the lake’s biological productivity. The consequences of these changes are not fully known, but it’s clear the lake’s fragile ecology is in peril.
In the U.S. Congress, Utah’s Rep. Blake Moore and Sen. Mitt Romney have introduced bipartisan legislation that would spend $25 million over five years “to assess, monitor and benefit the hydrology” of terminal water systems, and the habitats they create, in the region.
As the lake continues shrinking, the exposed playa will pose a greater threat to Utah’s air quality and put more dust on the Wasatch Mountains’ snowpack, making it melt sooner, potentially disrupting water supplies and adding to the ecological decline of the lake.
Unless the water levels return soon, the exposed calcium-carbonate structures will likely die, dragging down an ecosystem that could take decades to recover, if they ever do, according to biologist Jaimi Butler of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute.
About 5 to 7% of the Wasatch’s famous snow comes from lake effect storms. The Great Salt Lake generates 7,000 jobs and $1.3 billion each year through mineral harvesting, brine shrimp aquaculture, tourism and other lake-based industries. A 2019 Great Salt Lake Advisory Council report forecasts more than $2 billion in annual economic costs and losses if the lake keeps drying.
The lake’s record low hit during an epic drought coinciding Utah’s summer even, but the weather is not really to blame. We are. Unrelenting water diversions from rivers destined for the lake onto lawns, orchards, fields and homes.
According to a 2016 study, the lake would be 11 feet higher were it not for upstream diversions on the Weber, Provo and Bear rivers.
The world is littered with terminal lakes that are terminally ill thanks to excessive diversions. Will Utah’s Great Salt Lake join Iran’s Lake Urmia, California’s Owens Lake and Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea on this list of the doomed? It depends on decisions being made today.
Most observers say Utah must allow more water to reach the lake via the Weber, Jordan and, most importantly, the Bear rivers. That doesn’t necessarily mean having fewer people live on the Wasatch Front or growing less fruit and alfalfa, but there is no avoiding serious water conservation measures and reforms in the way water is managed, according to recommendations from the Department on Natural Resources for saving the lake.