The Great Salt Lake in Utah, the biggest salt lake in the western hemisphere, is plunging to historic low levels as the region suffers through a vast and relentless megadrought.
Late last month, data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey showed the lake levels at 1,277.5 metres — a new historic low for the lake, according to the Utah Rivers Council, a nonprofit that keeps tabs on the lake. The Great Salt Lake takes up around 4,402 square kilometres, an area around the size of Delaware. But that are could continue to shrink dramatically in the coming months.
The low has been a long time coming and isn’t necessarily totally due to climate change. No, instead it’s also a combination of other human activities. A 2017 study showed that human overuse of the freshwater streams and rivers that feed into the lake have helped shrink the Great Salt Lake to half its original volume, first measured in 1847.
The Great Salt Lake Is in Trouble
Still, the West’s current megadrought, which itself is supercharged by climate change, is bad news for the already-struggling lake. A lot of the runoff for the Great Salt Lake comes from snowfall during the winter. Yet the snowpack in Utah this winter was below normal. Spring also arrived hotter than normal. Soil, meanwhile, was already extremely dry, meaning a lot of the runoff that would normally go into the lake was absorbed by the thirsty ground. The lake normally gains 0.6 metres from spring runoff, but only got a boost of 15.2 centimetres this year.
Praying for Rain Didn’t Work for Utah
Last month, Utah’s Gov. Spencer Cox declared a “Weekend of Prayer,” encouraging all Utahns to pray for rain “to relieve our state from this drought.” Shockingly, it doesn’t look like God listened: At the end of June, 100% of the state was in drought, with more than 98% in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories included in the Drought Monitor. That means there’s a lack of water not just for the lake, but just about everything in the state.
The Lake Affects Everything From Industry to Wildlife
Having the lake get this low isn’t just a worrisome sign of how dry Utah is right now. The lake generates around $US1.3 ($2) billion per year from various industries. Roughly $US1.1 ($1.4) billion of that comes from minerals extraction, but recreation and brine shrimp farming also play key economic roles for the region.
Falling lake levels also mean that the animals living in and around the lake are facing challenges. New stretches of land allow for predators like foxes and coyotes to be able to prey on pelican eggs. The shrinking lake has also raised the risks of wildlife-human interaction for even before the latest dip in lake levels.
In 2019, officials put up fences around Antelope Island, a state park in the lake that’s home to a herd of bison and other large animals like wild sheep. Low water levels had turned the island into a peninsula, more easily allowing the megafauna to wander away and into the surrounding area. Officials suspected a respiratory disease that killed a number of wild sheep likely came from a wild animal coming in contact with a domesticated herd.
Air Quality Is Also a Concern
There are also really worrisome air quality implications tied to the shrinking lake. The dry lakebed, the AP reported, has now grown to around 1,942 square kilometres. All that dirt could be bad news for the lungs of those living in the region; the lakebed soil is naturally laced with arsenic, and experts are worried that winds could circulate dangerous dust into the air.
The Salt Lake is hemmed in by mountains, which trap a lot of air pollution. Salt Lake City already has some of the worst air quality in the U.S. Much of that is caused by fossil fuel pollution, but Utahns may be able to add “arsenic lake dust” to that load. In a vicious twist, some scientists also say the dust kicked up from the dry lake could even speed the melting of snow in the winter.
“A lot [of] us have been talking about the lake as flatlining,” Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, told the AP.
The West’s Reservoirs Are Suffering, Too
It’s not just the Great Salt Lake that’s feeling the heat. Crucial Lake Mead, a huge reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam that provides drinking water for California, Arizona, and portions of Mexico, dropped to its lowest levels on record in June. Meanwhile, other salt lakes around the world including the Dead Sea and the Salton Sea are also seeing their water levels plummet.
Experts say that saving the Salt Lake could mean cutting the use of freshwater tributaries that flow into the lake by nearly a third. For an exceptionally thirsty state — Utah’s public supply customers use the most water of any state in the U.S., with each person consuming between 150 and 757 litres per day — that could be an enormous challenge. But Utah may be up for it: In May, the town of Oakley took the bold step to finalise a pause on construction projects that would tap into the local water supply, over concern about drought conditions and water availability.
“There’s a lot of people who believe that every drop that goes into the Great Salt Lake is wasted,” Kevin Perry, a University of Utah atmospheric scientist, told the AP. “That’s the perspective I’m trying to change. The lake has needs, too. And they’re not being met.”