The volume of water in the Salt Lake has decreased by more than two-thirds since pioneers settled the Salt Lake Valley. Much of the lake’s surface is now exposed. This fall, water levels fell to an all-time low.
Images of empty moorings and cracked crust on the surface of the lake often illustrate the lake’s decline. But perhaps the most worrisome symptom lurks just below the surface of what little water remains. The lake’s salinity levels have risen dramatically in recent years, approaching dangerous thresholds for creatures at the base of its food web.
“When the lake goes down, the water evaporates but the salts are left behind,” said Wayne Wurtsbaugh, professor emeritus of hydrology at Utah State University. “We’re getting to the point where high salinity is stressing organisms that are adapted to that environment — mainly brine flies and brine shrimp.”
About 10 million migratory birds – some 338 species – depend on the lake’s habitat to survive.
“We could see a nonlinear collapse of food webs, and that will happen before the lake disappears,” said Ben Abbott, a professor at Brigham Young University who led the scientific group that warned of an emergency.
Brine shrimp are an important food source for the aquaculture industry. Declining water levels threaten other economic basics as well. The lake’s decline prompted American Magnesium, the nation’s largest producer of magnesium, to apply to widen canals that are used to absorb and evaporate brine in the lake to mine the mineral. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality denied her application late last year.
Meanwhile, unhealthy dust from the lake’s dry surface—which contains arsenic and other heavy metals—is spreading into communities near the lake, threatening more than two million residents in an area already struggling with air quality.
State officials have woken up in recent years to the problem with the lake — that upstream water use is choking the terminal lake. The rivers and streams that feed the Great Salt Lake have been pooled, which means that farmers and other water users have collective rights to more water than normally flows in each year. The amount of water that reaches the lake, especially during a drought, is insufficient.
In the past year, lawmakers have passed several bills aimed at reshaping the state’s relationship with water. One bill created a water fund designed to benefit the lake and its wetlands. The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society were appointed to lead the fund, which received $40 million from the legislature. Another bill makes it a “beneficial use” for farmers to allow water to flow into the lake. Previously, not using all of the allotted water put you at risk of losing future use of that water.
Separately, last November Utah Gov. Spencer Cox closed the Salt Lake basin to allotments for new uses of the water, effectively ending the line of water users wanting to use what flows into the lake.
The latest report from scientists and conservationists says that these measures are not enough, that the effects of these measures will take a long time and that a concerted effort is needed to save the lake.
“The lake needs water this year,” Abbott said.
Lawmakers say they are ready to sink the problem in new funding.
“We passed important legislation that gave us the tools to help us save the lake,” said Casey Snyder, the Republican state representative in the last session. “At this session, we now have the option to withdraw financing instruments.”
Cox, in his annual budget, included $132.9 million for the lake, including $100 million for short-term water leases to “care” agricultural water to the lake, and another $217.9 million for statewide water conservation and supply measures.
“We will do more than that. I am confident. Maybe much more than that,” said Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson. “Perhaps there is no issue more important than investing in and supporting our lake water strategy.”