‘It’s terrifying’: Researchers fear dire consequences of shrinking Great Salt Lake

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A lone bison walks along the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake on his way to a watering hole on April 30, 2021, at Antelope Island, Utah. The lake’s levels are largely expected to hit a 170-year low this year. It comes as the drought has the U.S. West bracing for a brutal wildfire season. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(ABC4) – It’s said that records were meant to be broken, but one particular record which is expected to be broken in the coming days is alarming local leaders and researchers as an indication of a pending statewide and global catastrophe.

“It’s terrifying,” says Jaimi Butler, a Great Salt Lake researcher at Westminster College. “We are going to be reaching the very lowest lake levels that we’ve ever seen in 170 years at the Great Salt Lake.”

Butler continues to add that the Great Salt Lake will likely lose two more feet of depth by October of this year.

While decreasing water levels aren’t unique to the Great Salt Lake, just about every single body of water is shallower than ever across the state, what makes the situation at the eighth-largest terminal lake in the world, is its signature saltiness.

The water is leaving the lake’s boundaries, but the salt is not, increasing the salinity of the remaining lake. The furthering of the saltiness, which became the lake’s namesake, is anticipated to have a large effect on the local ecosystem, especially on the brine shrimp that hatch annually in the Great Salt Lake.

“That’s going to mean less food for birds, and it’s going to mean the brine shrimp that we harvest and send around the world, as fish food for commercial aquaculture, could very well be impacted,” Butler explains, nothing that the brine shrimp harvested in Utah account for 40% of the world’s supply which is used to feed to prawns and other shellfish consumed by humans.

For those who think “I don’t care about brine shrimp, I don’t even like seafood,” there are other issues that a dried-up Great Salt Lake would pose to the local population. As the shoreline grows and reveals more salt and dust, it’s likely that any wind could pick up these minerals, some of which are harmful and toxic, and blow them into neighboring communities with adverse effects.

Butler explains that there is some history of dried-up lakes creating issues with humans, citing Owens Lake in California, which when desiccated to supply water to Los Angeles near the beginning of the 20th century, become the largest source of dust pollution in the United States.

“The locals would talk about running into the hills when they would see the dust storms,” Butler relates of the Californians in the 1920s. “They would run into the hills and get away from the dust by going into these higher elevation spots, and we can’t do that here. There are 3 million people that live on the shore of Great Salt Lake.”

An increasingly large shoreline could also create problems for the wildlife, especially for the birds who feed on the brine shrimp, and the animals such as coyotes and bison that live on Antelope Island. Butler remarks that coyotes are being spotted more and more often on Gunnison Island, where a majority of the American White Pelicans make their nests while feeding. While putting up fencing around the islands is an option, it’s likely that doing so would be extremely expensive to build and maintain.

Butler states that right now, the lake she has studied extensively for years is at a crossroads.

“We have two options. We have a dried-up, environmental, economic, and cultural catastrophe that will be the Great Salt Lake and will be impacting our economy and our human health, or we can try to save the Great Salt Lake, and try to work towards a sustainable Great Salt Lake.”

As the situation nears a tipping point, Butler is hopeful that progress can be made on the latter option. She’s not the only one who is concerned about the Great Salt Lake. Conservation studies and strategies were recently developed by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council to outlines the risks, scenarios, and consequences in play.

The council came up with 12 of the top strategies that were sourced from the public to help mitigate and remedy the problem. Many of the proposed solutions involve identifying how much water is protected, and how much can be treated and metered out to the public and to farmers for their own purposes.

The process of saving the lake won’t be easy but it is possible, Butler says.

“What we need to do is figure out how to work together, so that everybody has what they need,” she states. “It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be uncomfortable but the stage is set for success.”

Butler acknowledges that when most Utahns think of the Great Salt Lake, they think of a smelly, bug-infested, bird-ridden place that may not have a place in the day-to-day life of someone in say, Provo, or downtown Salt Lake City. However, as she has explained, there are many economic, environmental, and cultural consequences tied to the disappearance of the lake.

While the changes may be biologically microscopic or measured in mere inches at first, the problems could quickly work their way up to the human level on a global scale if change doesn’t happen fast, Butler says.

“We’ll see the effect starting at the bottom of the food chain,” she explains. “The lake drying isn’t just a local thing, it actually affects our entire world.”

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