I recently visited the Natural History Museum of Utah with my daughter where they have an exhibit about the Great Salt Lake. A display lets kids crank a handle to fill up a miniature model of our Salt Lake valley with water to visualize the historic high levels of the lake.
As my curious 6-year-old cranked the water in like rain, she and I were fascinated to imagine how much greater the Great Salt Lake once was.
More than 20,000 years ago the lake (or technically, its shoreline) had a different name – Stansbury Lake, according to geomorphologists. It gradually swelled to its peak size, becoming Lake Bonneville, between 16,000 and 14,500 years ago. It then covered almost a quarter of Utah and reached depths of 1,000 feet in some places. Most of our homes in the Salt Lake valley would have been submerged, except for those lucky few along the upper foothills with “beachfront” property. The imprint of the shoreline can still be seen today.
Lake Bonneville disappeared rather catastrophically when a sandstone embankment at Red Rock Pass, Idaho, suddenly gave way. Scientists estimate the breach spewed at a violent rate of 15 million cubic feet every second, flowing into the Pacific Ocean via the Snake and Columbia Rivers. In just a few weeks the massive lake dropped more than 300 feet.
In the following centuries, the lake stabilized at its Provo shoreline level at just over 4,700 feet above sea level, the level of Foothill Drive in Salt Lake City. A couple of centuries later, the lake level shrunk further, fluctuating at levels similar to today but with the West Desert flooded. At this stage, 10,000 years ago, it was named Lake Gilbert. We know the first Utahns, people of the Pleistocene, experienced the Gilbert Episode when they weren’t hunting mammoths and saber-tooth tigers to extinction.
Now in 2021, the Great Salt Lake has shrunk to its lowest level ever, below 4,191.35 feet above sea level. Since the Mormon pioneers arrived in 1847, it has dropped 11 feet and shrunk by a third in size.
If we account for all the factors draining it away — our agricultural choices, lawns and golf courses and drinking water, compounded by drought and climate change — what does the disappearing lake mean for us, as modern Utahns?
At its new emasculated level, maybe it is time to give the lake a new name. Because it’s not seeming so “Great” anymore.
Natural events and a changing climate have always affected the lake. But even with our current climate crisis and drought, allowing the lake to wither and die is a policy decision. If the lake vanishes, that’s on us. And it will have devastating consequences for our children. Like my daughter.
A third of the lake’s water comes from precipitation, while two-thirds of it comes from the three rivers that feed it — the Bear, the Weber and the Jordan rivers. The more we’ve drawn from those rivers the more the lake vanishes. And if more diversions occur on the Bear River for a growing Wasatch Front population, it could mark the endgame for the lake.
Our water use mindset of “beneficial use” has gotten us here. The prevailing attitude has been that any water that has reached the lake was wasted — not “beneficial” for humans. So, let’s redefine “beneficial.”
The Great Salt Lake did not just give our capital city its name. It has a significant and underappreciated impact on our collective well-being. It provides billions of dollars in resources for the minerals industry, brine shrimp harvesters and recreationists. It supports a critical migratory bird ecosystem. It feeds our annual snowpack. It prevents toxic dust storms from occurring. It gives us awe-inspiring views.
We must have a long-term perspective. The decisions we make now could preserve the lake for our children, and their children. All of us who benefit from the lake in one way or another need to think seriously about what the lake means to us, and what it will mean when it’s gone. Because when it is gone, it will need a new name.
Ross Chambless lives in Great Salt Lake City and works for the Utah House of Representatives.