Great Salt Lake reaches historic low levels


MAGNA, Utah (ACB4 News) – The Great Salt Lake has reached historic low levels and scientists believe it will only continue to shrink all the way up to the end of the century.

Scientists measure the water levels by looking at the north and south arms of the lake.  The north is lower at 4,189 ft., while the south is only three feet above that at 4,192 ft., and these low waters will affect everything that relies for survival from the lake.

As the water levels decrease more of the lake bed will continue to be exposed and that poses a threat to the wildlife on the islands, and officials say they’ve already begun to see that effect.

“We’ve had a few instances already where bison and antelope and coyotes are able to move off the island,” said Jason Curry with the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands.  “Predators can access some of the islands.”

The pelican refuge, officials say, is one that is threatened by these low levels.  Now that some of these islands are no long landlocked officials are worried about those pelicans that use the islands to raise their young. They can be in danger of being targeted by predators and people who now have access to those once secluded areas.

“As that lake continues to go down it’s a perpetual cycle if things don’t get better it will only get worse,” says Curry.

The ecosystem of the lake is also threatened.  Scientists say as the water levels go down salinity goes up and that poses a major threat to brine shrimp which are at the epicenter of the lake’s ecosystem.

“There’s everything from algae to predators and they’re all affected by that brine shrimp, something reliant on lake levels and salinity,” said Curry.  “They can survive in varying levels of salinity.  It is OK right now but it’s critical.”

And he adds that the salinity levels, particularly on the sound end, have gotten to the point where life can no longer be sustained in those areas.  

Scientists say the lake behaves as a litmus test for the health of our water supply and habitats.  Even with good runoff a growing population affects the lake’s recovery.  For example, they say this year alone there was 100% runoff from the Unita Mountains into Bear River — the lake’s main input — but, human consumption kept over 70% of the runoff from reaching the lake.

“Agriculture takes a lot of it, municipality takes a lot of it and really it doesn’t even make it to the Great Salt Lake,” said Brian McInereny, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.  “We’ve seen an influx in water usage and the absence of normal water runoff — combination of those two things bring the lake down every year.”

As we look towards the future of the Great Salt Lake ot does not bode well, especially when you factor in climate factors and continued drought.

“We’re only getting warmer all the time and that bodes for a drier climate also, when you look at soil moisture projections over time it’s gonna get much drier and as a result we’re gonna see the Salt Lake decline for the next 75 years,” says McInerney.

Scientists say the exposed lake bed also increases alkaline dust, which they say is harmful to our health.  

“When you see the Great Salt Lake declining like this, we’re gonna see more addition problems with warmer climates, more exposed lake bed, more alkaline dust, the bird refuge is going to be stressed,” said McInerney.

Theoretically, Utah would need to see a tremendous amount of rainfall and runoff from all of the lake’s major contributors to see any impact on the lake. 

“Theoretically, we would need 150% run off from the major contributor for quite an extended time to bring the lake to levels of normal or average lake levels,” says McInerney.

But as of right now… “The future of the Great Salt Lake does not look very promising,” said McInerney.

Curry says Though conservation efforts are best and encourage people to save water it really wouldn’t do much for the health of the lake.

“Water conservation is part of it  but at this point it’s beyond it.  Any water you conserve will be above the Great Salt Lake,” he said.

As far as tourism, Curry says the reputation of the lake has kept enthusiasm for the lake however, he says he has heard of comments from visitors expressing concern for the lake and highlighting how low the water levels have gotten. 

As far as recreation, the Department of Natural Resources has plans to dredge the lake to help in small part, but as of right now marinas like the ones at Saltair and Antelope Island are not available for recreational purposes.  

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