UTAH (ABC4) – When you think of Utah what is the first thing that comes to mind? For many, it’s the Great Salt Lake. However, with hotter summer months and a prolonged drought, the lake may be losing some of the features that make it great. Great Salt Lake State Park officials and researchers shine a light on what is happening to the lake and what that could mean for the survival of wildlife, the health of Utahns, and the impact on the economy.
“Well, I would say it’s in really bad trouble right now,” Dr. Daniel Bedford told ABC4 when asked how long it may take for the lake to be in trouble. Dr. Bedford is a professor at Weber State University. He is a physical geologist and climatologist who has dedicated nearly two decades to studying the Great Salt Lake and the climate.
“What we’re doing to Great Salt Lake is going to have, is already having, impacts on birdlife, impacts on the greater environment,” Dr. Bedford added.
To understand what’s going on at the lake, it may help to look to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.
“This is the end of the Bear River,” Refuge Complex Manager Erin Holmes explained as she gestured to the river behind her. “So, the Bear River is about 350 plus miles long.” The refuge sits on the mouth of the river at the end of its long journey to the Great Salt Lake. “And what’s so significant about the Bear River is it provides two-thirds of all the water input into the Great Salt Lake.”
Before the freshwater from the river mixes with the salinated water of the lake, the river usually provides the refuge with about 30,000 acres of wetlands. These wetlands provide habitat for hundreds of species of birds.
“About a third of all migratory birds in the western United States spend some of their time in Great Salt Lake either nesting or feeding,” Dr. Jonathan Clark explained. Dr. Clark is also a professor at Weber State University and a zoologist. He has spent years studying how wildlife (with an emphasis on invertebrates) are affected by the changes of the lake.
This summer, the refuge was able to fill less than 5,000 acres of its wetlands
“which means less water, less habitat for migratory birds, less feeding, nesting, resting habitat,” Holmes stated. “By not having the water that we need, we weren’t able to put any water into the Great Salt Lake as we usually do.”
The impact from this lack of water at the bird refuge is then felt further downstream, or at the Great Salt Lake, we should say.
“We did break a record this year,” Dave Shearer told ABC4. “We were the lowest we’d ever seen historically.” Shearer is the park manager at Great Salt Lake State Park. He has spent more than two decades at the park and has seen how the extended drought has changed the face of the lake firsthand.
Shearer said the lake is currently more than 10 feet lower than it should be. While that may not sound like much, it is. Shearer put it into perspective when he said, “Normally, this lake is about 1,500 square miles. It is about 930 square miles now, so we’ve lost almost half of the volume of the lake.”
Researchers from WSU are studying different elements of the lake, including naturally occurring mercury levels.
“So as we continue forward,” Dr. Rebecka Brasso stated. “If our June and Julys start to be warmer than they were in the past, I think that we could see more mercury cycling into the food web earlier in the summer and spring than we have before.” Dr. Brasso is a professor at the university and a zoologist. She and her students have spent the last three years collecting spiders from the lake to measure the amounts of mercury in the arachnids.
Why are researchers paying attention to the smallest critters at the lake? There are many reasons.
In Dr. Brasso’s case, if spiders at the lake are eating flies that have high levels of mercury in their bodies (which may happen as flies begin their life cycle in the water), the birds and other animals that eat those insects may also develop higher levels of mercury.
“That can affect things like how many eggs they lay, how many eggs hatch from those, and even the survival of the young, and if they’re already struggling because of lack of food, it’s too hot, and then you add on something like increased mercury concentrations, it’s almost like a triple or double whammy on their reproductive success,” Dr. Brasso explains.
Shearer told ABC4 the lower water levels at the lake are already hurting the bird populations. He explained that islands, where the birds raise their young, have turned into peninsulas. This allows predators to easily access the chicks.
As the lake dries, researchers worry about the health of Utahns as well. “I wrote a comparison between Great Salt Lake and a famous case of lake decline in Central Asia called the Aral Sea,” explained Dr. Bedford. “There are terrible cases of human illness as a consequence of exposure to some of the things that were coming out of the Aral Sea.”
Researchers agree a drier lake may mean worse air quality. The dust from the lake also affects the snowpack across the Wasatch Front making the snow melt faster than it should. Less water in the lake also means the lake effect will create less snow.
“That has implications because not only does it affect the ski industry, but it also affects the inflow of water into the lake in the spring because the snow melts and feeds into the rivers that feed into the lake,” explained Dr. Clark. “So, it’s this feedback loop of us affecting the lake and the lake affecting us,” added Dr. Bedford. “Particularly through the lens of water.”
Researchers told ABC4 that as the lake dries, it becomes saltier. In the northern arm of the lake, the salinity has increased and the brine shrimp population has decreased. The researchers said this could be an indicator of what may soon happen in the southern arm of the lake as well. The brine shrimp industry brings in millions of dollars a year to Utah and would be affected if this happened.