Great Salt Lake wetland managers prepare to support millions of migrating birds — and the Wasatch Front’s coming floods

The lake’s wetlands are carefully engineered and controlled systems that support a vital ecosystem.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ogden Bay Waterfowl Manager Rich Hansen, left, and Ducks Unlimited Regional Director Chad Yamane use an air boat to glide over the shallows of Ogden Bay, checking on repair projects to restore critical Great Salt Lake wetlands on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

Utah’s wetlands are crucial in times of drought and times of flooding, but they haven’t always received the appreciation and attention they need.

At Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, manager Rich Hansen is busy bracing for the deluge of snowmelt. He is clearing logs and debris from intakes. He is flooding the parking lots duck hunters typically use in the fall. His water control structures are wide open so all the Weber River’s runoff can disperse across the bay’s 19,000 acres of wetlands, instead of ending up in people’s basements.

“These wetlands are so, so crucial to flood water attenuation and just dispersing the water once it gets out here,” Hansen said while a chorus of songbirds and shorebirds chirped nearby.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pair of American avocet fly over the Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, near the outflow of the Weber River where some signs of improvement to bird habitat can be seen following a record snow fall year. Critical shallow wetlands that were bone-dry just weeks before have slowly come back, as much attention is paid to how much the shallow lake will recover.

He is happy to see the surge. At this time last year, following a nearly bone-dry winter, the Weber River only trickled at 60 cubic feet per second, Hansen said. After this season’s record-setting snowpack, however, it currently is gushing at 3,870 cubic feet per second. That’s almost four times the volume of its median flow.

After it slows and filters through Ogden Bay’s wetlands, it ripples to the Great Salt Lake. A vast expanse that was dry lakebed only months ago has water again. It’s only a few inches deep, but it is keeping down a source of toxic dust for the people living on the Wasatch Front.

And it is luring millions of shorebirds, ducks and other waterfowl on their spring migration.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thousands of shore birds and waterfowl take flight near the outflow of the Weber River where it meets the Great Salt Lake on April 12, 2023. Critical shallow bird habitat has been covered with a few inches of water following a record-breaking snowpack.

“We know that it’s not enough to save the Great Salt Lake,” said Coryna Hebert, Utah biologist for Ducks Unlimited. “It simply has averted an ecological catastrophe we were on the brink of [at] this time last year.”

The Great Salt Lake has sunk to record lows the past two years in a row, bottoming out at an all-time low of 4,188.5 feet above sea level in November. Its brine flies were all but wiped out. Salinity concentrations were so high the lake’s brine shrimp were on the verge of collapse as well. Both critters are keystones of the food web millions of migrating birds depend on each year.

After a record-breaking winter, however, the lake’s elevation is up more than 3.5 feet from its record low.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“It buys us a little bit extra time,” Hebert said, “to implement some of these measures we need to start saving water and reversing the slow trend of the lake declining every year.”

A major component of restoring the lake’s health and resiliency is restoring its wetlands. Wetlands provide diverse habitat for wildlife and improve water quality for the lake, while helping recharge groundwater and mitigating flood damage in nearby communities.

But Ogden Bay was dangerously close to losing its wetlands with this spring’s runoff.

A three-mile levee built in 1937 to create the management area has long been neglected and left to erode. The earthen structure was originally 21 feet wide, but sections are currently as narrow as 7 feet.

“With the flows we’re experiencing, the dike would wash out and managers would lose all control of the water to Ogden Bay,” Hansen said. “We would have thousands of acres go dry later in the summer.”

Ducks Unlimited is using part of a $1 million federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant to help restore Ogden Bay’s levee by hauling in boulders to shore up the structure and return it to its original footprint.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heavy machinery repairs the east bay dike of the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management area, originally built in 1937, which has been eroding for years on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. The Ducks Unlimited project serves as the most important tool in water management for 19,000 acres to divert water and best serve shore birds and waterfowl habitat.

The Great Salt Lake’s wetlands are controlled by dikes and levees

The Great Salt Lake is home to about one-third of Utah’s vegetated wetlands, according to the Utah Geological Survey. Many of those ecological expanses are heavily engineered and carefully managed. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built dikes and levees at Ogden Bay, Bear River Bay and Farmington Bay in an effort to stave off mass bird die-offs caused by avian botulism.

The toxin comes from bacteria that thrive in the stagnant water left after the lake rises in the spring and recedes in the summer, leaving warm, stagnant pools. Bugs consume and concentrate the bacteria. Birds eat the bugs and become infected. The disease slowly paralyzes them, causing them to drown.

“These dikes all allow managers to manage and manipulate the water,” Hansen said, “and keep it ... constantly moving.”

Engineered wetlands have also helped biologists get control over phragmites, an invasive water-sucking reed that first popped up in the Great Salt Lake’s wetlands following the floods of the 1980s. It has since ravaged the landscape, choking out native species and wildlife habitat.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ogden Bay Waterfowl Manager Rich Hansen talks about ongoing repair work being done, in background, to the east bay dyke on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, which has been eroding for years since being built in 1937.

“Successfully managing phragmites,” Hebert said, “like removing a big stand, often takes like three to five years of many different treatments of herbicides grazing, cutting, mowing, sometimes burning. I mean, it’s really hard to get rid of.”

At controlled wetlands like Ogden Bay, managers can drain certain areas dry to spray the weeds or corral cows to eat them. Or they can open the floodgates and try to smother the plants.

“We’ve opened up probably 12,000 acres that were phragmites 10 years ago,” Hansen said. “So we don’t want to lose the progress we’ve gained.”

And with climate change, aridification and a growing population in the West, wetlands are rapidly being lost to drought and development. That makes the Great Salt Lake’s wetlands vital for supporting birds and preventing endangered species listings.

“The best wetlands we have in the West are these managed wetlands,” said Ryan Sabalow, a Ducks Unlimited spokesperson. “Because we have so few of them, you kind of have to make sure they run perfectly.”

Are wetlands across Utah disappearing?

Utah’s resource managers don’t have good data on how much of the state’s wetlands have been lost in recent decades. Although they create highly a productive habitat, prevent flooding and keep the environment healthy, humans have long seen them as a boggy, buggy nuisance.

“Generally as a society, we have viewed wetlands as wastelands across North America,” said Karin Kettenring, a professor of wetland ecology at Utah State University. “So there’s always been this push to fill and drain wetlands.”

In just the 14 years since Kettenring relocated to Utah, she said she has watched development encroach along the periphery of the Great Salt Lake, in zones that would have helped absorb the rapid runoff potentially coming this spring. She also has seen development pop up along the historic floodplain of the Logan River, a tributary of the Great Salt Lake basin.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of Ducks Unlimited give a tour of the Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, near the outflow of the Weber River, which has seen improved bird habitat to an area that used to be bone-dry just weeks before, following a record breaking snow year.

“It’s both at the end of the line at Great Salt Lake,” Kettenring said, “but also recognizing that wetlands upstream are important in helping slow the flow throughout the whole watershed.”

Utahns and other communities in the West have manipulated rivers and waterways for flood control over more than a century using dams, dikes and reservoirs. But as the Great Salt Lake flooding of the 1980s shows, or the Weber County floods of 2011, or the flooding of Logan and Box Elder County in 2017, these solutions don’t always work.

“Some would like to have complete control,” Kettenring said, “and completely hard-engineer the system, which tends to be a much more expensive and not necessarily better approach.”

All the damage to homes and infrastructure left by recent floods isn’t exactly cheap, either.

Still, Kettenring said, she sees value in the engineering done on the Great Salt Lake’s wetlands, especially with all the dams, diversions, farms and developments in the lake’s watershed.

“Without fundamentally changing how we use our water upstream,” Kettenering said, “it’s a logical response. I don’t see any way we could have wetlands without them as this point.”

And the professor is hopeful with the attention, alarm and investment the lake has received from policymakers and legislators, a similar enthusiasm for protecting wetlands will follow.

“I do have some level of optimism,” Kettenring said. “There’s a lot more awareness of the role of the Great Salt Lake. To me, that includes the wetlands. You can’t really separate the lake from the wetlands.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake shows signs of improvement on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, near the outflow of the Weber River where areas that used to be bone-dry just weeks before have been covered with a few inches of water improving bird habitat and reducing dust.