OGDEN, Utah (ABC4) – As Utah continues facing an unprecedented drought, one Utah university is hoping to better understand and preserve the shrinking Great Salt Lake.
Weber State University (WSU) has been focusing its efforts on studying the lake, made more dire due to record low water levels.
As the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River, the Great Salt Lake has prehistoric roots and covers a large portion of western Utah. The iconic lake’s impact extends beyond its fame as a tourist attraction – it actually plays a vital role in both the biological and economic ecosystems of Utah.
“It’s been apparent for over a decade that climate change could push the Great Salt Lake system towards drying up, if our water use practices didn’t keep pace,” says Dan Bedford, WSU geography professor. “Unfortunately, that prediction is playing out before our eyes. At the global scale, the Earth has warmed up, but at the scale of individual regions, global warming drives other climate changes, including more intense droughts in already dry places like the western U.S.”
WSU students and professors are focusing on the organisms, wildlife, and natural elements of the lake to better understand the long-term effects of water recession.
When it comes to organisms, research has been focused on species such as brine shrimp and brine flies which are some of the only species that can thrive in a high salt environment.
Brine shrimp play an incredibly important role in the Great Salt Lake as an essential food source for millions of migratory birds visiting the lake each year. The shrimp also support Utah’s local economy as a major source of a multi-million dollar harvest provider.
WSU is also studying algal and microbial growth in the lake, which are primary food sources for both microscopic organisms and shorebirds who rely on the lake to survive.
“The lake is a valuable natural resource for Utah,” says Jonathan Clark, WSU zoology professor. “It provides a habitat for millions of birds and is a factor in the abundant snowfall the Wasatch Front receives. It also provides economic benefits, including mineral extraction and brine shrimp production. Unfortunately, the lake is under many pressures that threaten not only its health, but its very existence. We need to understand more about the lake so it can be managed better.”
Another focus looks at the mercury levels on the lake. Higher mercury levels will negatively affect the shrimps’ reproductive health, which can cause a negative chain reaction.
Notably, WSU wants to better understand the impact human activity has had on the lake’s gradual shrinkage.
Commercial and residential development, water diversions, and increasing temperatures with drying climates have all greatly contributed to the historic lows the Great Salt Lake is experiencing today.
“The Great Salt Lake has provided people with livelihoods since before the European settlement of northern Utah,” says Carla Trentelman, a sociology professor. “Its resources made it possible for some families to weather the Great Depression, and the lake currently provides huge economic benefits for the state’s economy. The extraordinary conditions the lake is facing creates problems for not only the entire lake ecosystem, but also poses threats to the industries that rely on the lake. A drying lake also poses risks to human health, as dry, exposed lakebed areas are prone to dust storms and add to air-quality problems.”
The U.S. Congress is currently trying to understand the decline of saline lakes with Sen. Mitt Romney working with others to pass the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, which would grant funding to monitor the health of salt lakes and the ecosystems that depend on it.
WSU hopes their research efforts can lead to mass support of the preservation of the Great Salt Lakes for generations to come.