For the second time in less than a year, the Great Salt Lake has sunk to a record-breaking low elevation.
The news came as little surprise to water managers and environmental advocates, given human-caused climate change and Utah’s persistent drought. The lake’s tributary basins have seen yet another average to lackluster water year to date, bringing little moisture desperately needed to replenish the lake and reverse its long-term decline.
And despite hitting another new low, Great Salt Lake’s shriveling act likely isn’t over for the season.
Utahns have kept regular records of the lake’s elevation since 1847. On July 3, the U.S. Geological Survey reported an average daily surface water elevation of 4,190.1 feet above sea level at its gauging station on the lake’s southern end.
This beats a record low of 4,191.3 feet first set on July 23 of last year. A long, hot summer and lack of rainfall caused the lake to continue shrinking to an ultimate low point of 4,190.2 feet in October.
As with last year, scientists and state officials expect the lake’s elevation to continue to drop until late fall or early winter.
“This is not the type of record we like to break,” Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry said in a news release. “Urgent action is needed to help protect and preserve this critical resource.”
Before 2021, the Great Salt Lake’s record low was 4,191.35 feet, measured in October 1963.
Because the lake is large but shallow, a decline of even a few feet can expose vast stretches of lakebed. That exposed lakebed, in turn, could create a public health disaster due to blowing dust and the lake’s proximity to major Wasatch Front cities like Salt Lake City, Layton and Ogden. The Great Salt Lake’s sediment contains toxins like mercury and arsenic from past mining activities.
Around half the lakebed currently sits bare.
Ferry, who also serves as a Republican in the Utah House, sponsored and advocated for a slew of water-conservation bills in the latest legislative session. Among the actions meant to benefit the Great Salt Lake are a $250 million secondary water metering mandate and a $40 million trust meant secure it more water.
It’s unclear whether lawmakers would have adopted such bold and expensive policies if it weren’t for a deluge of federal funding from sources like coronavirus pandemic aid and the infrastructure bill.
And those measures have yet to slow the lake’s disappearing act — so far.
The Utah Rivers Council, a nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of the lake and reformed water policy, denounced lawmakers for waiting until the lake hit a record low before they took action.
“Utah has failed to protect the Great Salt Lake, Executive Director Zach Frankel said in a news release, “because our Statehouse spent 20 years turning a blind eye to Utah’s nation-leading municipal water waste and refused to confer any protection to the lake.”
The state’s pioneer-era water law has seen few reforms or updates since settlers started measuring the lake’s elevation in the 1840s. Those policies have historically done little to encourage conservation and did not consider the Great Salt Lake or its habitat a beneficial use for the state’s water.
“It’s clear the lake is in trouble,” said Ferry, who was appointed to oversee the Department of Natural Resources by Gov. Spencer Cox last month. “We recognize more action and resources are needed, and we are actively working with the many stakeholders who value the lake.”
This article is published through The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.