UTAH (ABC4) – Water levels at the Great Salt Lake are at record lows and according to the Utah Division of Water Resources, those levels are likely to continue dropping through mid-October. As the water levels drop, the salinity levels increase. Salinity levels that are too high could reduce the brine shrimp population which, in turn, could negatively impact the migratory bird population, and cost Utah’s economy millions of dollars annually.
“There are very few places like it in North America,” Dr. Daniel Bedford told ABC4. He continued: “Very few places like it in the world.”
Dr. Bedford is a professor of physical geography and climate science at Weber State University. For years, he’s been studying the drought’s effects on the lake. He told ABC4 that while the lake is in dire shape, it’s not too late to save it.
Brine shrimp are often referred to as sea monkeys. They are often sold in plastic aquariums for children. They are invertebrates that are about as big as an adult’s fingernail, are almost translucent in color, and are hard to kill. That is often why they are sold as kid-friendly pets. However, while they are tough, they aren’t indestructible.
As the Great Salt Lake’s water continues to recede ever further from the shoreline, we are learning more about the adverse effects that it has on the ecosystem.
“So, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, Great Salt Lake’s important to us because it’s the source of many millions of dollars of revenue,” Dr. Bedford stated, “and if we think that we have any responsibility to other creatures, this is something that we ought to be taking seriously.”
According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, brine shrimp have thrived in the lake for around 600,000 years. However, scientists are worried that the lake is beginning to negatively impact these tiny creatures, and humans may be at least partially responsible.
“Anecdotally, we noticed the northern part of the lake, which is the saltiest part of the lake, that’s getting saltier because of reduced inflow to the lake,” Dr. Jonathan Clark stated. Dr. Clark is a zoologist, professor at Weber State University, and has been studying the creatures that depend on the lake to survive for more than a decade.
He says it takes a long time for an ecosystem to change or adapt, but that over the last 10 years, researchers have been able to record what may be the beginning of a change in how brine shrimp live in the lake. “We do see that some of the species we used to find 10 years ago, we’re not finding them to be as abundant in the north arm of the lake,” he added.
Dr. Clark explained that for many species of animals (including hundreds of species of migratory birds), brine shrimp play a crucial role in their diet. If the brine shrimp disappear, then many other species will as well. He added: “At some point, those invertebrates, even though they’re very adaptable, they’re not able to survive above a certain saline, salt level.”
In the north arm of the lake, the water is much saltier than other areas. The water is usually about 25 percent saline, or salt. However, Dr. Clark said the salinity levels continue to rise in the north arm. This may be causing the brine shrimp population in the area to suffer.
“And that’s ultimately not going to be to our benefit,” Dr. Bedford stated. “There’s multi-million-dollar industries that run out of the Great Salt Lake. The brine shrimp industry. The salt industry. Bird watching. Tourism. (These industries) draw millions of dollars every single year.”
Both Clark and Bedford told ABC4 they are hopeful for the future of the lake. They believe that as more people become aware of the situation, and as Utah politicians continue to pass laws that encourage and promote water conservation, the lake will make a turnaround.