Great Salt Lake and Lake Powell: What’s the state of Utah’s water?

Warm weather and evaporation mean Great Salt Lake will continue to decline until temps and precipitation drop in late fall.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thousands of birds create a murmuration near Fremont Island on the Great Salt Lake on Tuesday, July 18, 2023.

Editor’s note: This article is part of the Open Lands newsletter from The Salt Lake Tribune environment team. You can subscribe to the twice-monthly email here.

Hey there, it’s land and water use reporter Leia Larsen. I like to joke that the Great Salt Lake is really just a big puddle — the enormous, shallow lake evaporates an incredible amount of water every year. Its southern half is now a full foot lower than the peak elevation it hit for the year back in late June, and losing a foot exposes a whole lot of lakebed.

I’m hoping to get an aerial tour next month to see how much the lake has changed since the influx of record-breaking runoff in the spring. Warm weather and evaporation mean the lake level will continue to decline until temps and precipitation drop in late fall.

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The southern half remains quite a bit lower than the north due to the breach in the rock-filled railroad causeway bisecting the lake, which state regulators blocked off last year to prevent total ecological collapse.

That move likely saved the south arm’s brine shrimp, brine flies and the birds that depend on them. It also caused the south half to swell by about 5.5 feet from its record low set last fall. But the north arm is actually a few inches lower than it was at this time last year.

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune)

It goes to show that even after an amazing winter and unprecedented snowpack, the lake remains in trouble. As I’ve written previously, nesting birds have vanished from an important pelican colony in the north arm, and dust storms keep kicking up near our urban population centers to the south. The south arm needs to rise another seven feet or so, and the north arm needs to rise more than 10 feet, for the lake to reach a sustainable elevation.

On a lighter note, lake lovers can now buy a special Great Salt Lake license plate. It costs $46 upfront and $25 annually, which gets added to motorists’ usual registration fees. Proceeds go to a preservation fund managed by the Department of Natural Resources for lake conservation projects. But the DMV needs at least 500 drivers to sign up before they start mailing out the plates, so get those applications in.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A new special Great Salt Lake license plate, recently introduced and aimed to raise funds and awareness for saving the water body, was amongst the booths of the Great Salt Lake Summit in Sandy on Saturday, July 15, 2023.

In southern Utah, Lake Powell sits at 37.4% full. It has dropped about 7 feet so far this year.

The U.S. Department of Interior is busy drafting plans for how it will manage reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead in the decades ahead as the Colorado River remains overtapped by millions of people in the West and depleted by drought. Public comments on the department’s environmental impact statement for post-2026 operations are due this Tuesday.

It’ll be interesting to sift through that feedback. I’m curious whether draining Lake Powell and restoring Glen Canyon will be a common theme. It’s no longer a fringe idea embraced by environmental groups. Some of the most respected scientists who study the Colorado River suggested earlier this year the feds should seriously consider bypassing Glen Canyon Dam and storing Powell’s water in Mead instead, since both mega-reservoirs will probably never fill beyond 50% of their capacity ever again.

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Do you have any questions about water management in the West? Or story ideas to share? You can reach me at llarsen@sltrib.com.