At seventy-five miles long and thirty-five miles wide, Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere. Its massive size might make it seem like a fixed part of the American West, but the great lake is vanishing quickly, and it has researchers and ecologists scrambling to find a solution that will at least slow the lake's demise. If something doesn't change - and soon - it could have devastating implications for the entire region.
Recently, a report from Utah State University revealed how dire the situation has become at the Great Salt Lake. According to the report, over 50% of the lake bed has been exposed, nearly half of the water has dried up and the lake has dropped 11 feet since settlers arrived in the valley in the mid-nineteenth century. That’s a significant drop for a lake that is only 33-feet deep at its deepest.
Last spring, cranes were brought in to lift 80 boats out of the muddy marina after water levels dropped so low that the marina was no longer deep enough to support the boats. Today, a year later, they sit moored on the side of the road, waiting for a day when they might get them up and running. The state approved a budget for dredging the marina with the hopes of getting boats back in the water at some point, but the work would just be a bandage on a larger problem.
While many think of the lake as essentially a “dead” sea, the lake is home to numerous wetlands that support waterfowl, shorebirds and lakeside ecology. The lake also acts as a hub for migratory birds across the world. Development has already threatened these areas, and the drying lakebed only exacerbates the issue. A dry lakebed will also reduce precipitation in northern Utah and increase dust in what is already some of the most polluted air in the nation.
Many in Utah blame the lake levels on drought, but as the recent report illustrates, diversion is a major contributor to lake levels, since it is fed by numerous rivers that are used as sources of water for Utah residents. Of all of the human-caused water depletion, 63% has gone to agricultural use, with another 24% going to mineral extraction and industry. All told, about 40% of the water running into the Great Salt Lake has been diverted. Coupled with reduced precipitation in the region, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Reduced levels have also caused problems related to the railway causeway that divides the lake in half. Reduced water is causing erosion, which threatens to collapse the 20-mile railroad causeway that traverses the lake. But even more distressing, the raised causeway, coupled with the lower water level, has prevented water from moving between the two sides of the lake, essentially killing the northern half of the lake. Since a majority of the fresh water feeds into the lake from the south, the northern half of the lake hasn’t been receiving fresh water, raising the salinity. When viewed from the air, the northern half of the lake appears to be pink. That’s because the lake’s main inhabitant – brine shrimp – can’t survive in the saltier water, leaving behind salt-loving bacteria with a pinkish hue.
Some areas of the lake have dropped so low that islands are no longer islands, including Antelope Island, the lake’s largest, which is now surrounded by shallow waters and dry lakebed. Instead of being a true island, as it is when water levels are higher, it is now a peninsula. Other smaller islands have been exposed and are now just grassy hills in the middle of dry lakebed.
The drying lake has caused another concerning issue: poisonous air. The Great Salt Lake is full of toxic arsenic, selenium and mercury, with levels so high they are unlike just about anything measured before in a US body of water. As the lake is drying, the chemicals are settling into the soil, which gets kicked up when the wind blows. Right now, researchers are looking into the potential health threat that these chemicals may pose to a proposed prison that will be built next to the lake.
When I was young, I used to sit at the edge of the lake by the railroad tracks that run to the south of the lake and pretend I was sitting on the ocean. These days, I can walk out from the railroad tracks for an hour on the cracked, salty lakebed and not reach the shoreline. Since the early 1900s, families spent their summers at the Saltair amusement park, which featured a massive dance pavilion in the lake that could only be reached by walking along an extended pier. Today, you can walk along the dry lakebed and follow the path where the pier foundations sit, and the wood foundations that used to support the pavilion now stand dry like lonely sentries in the middle of the lakebed.
Water is an incredibly precious resource in the West (see: California), and as people continue to battle to control it, less and less of it is reaching the lakes. If the Great Salt Lake is allowed to dry up, the impact on wildlife, local populations and the entire ecology of the west could be serious. Utah’s leaders need to weigh the value of their state’s economy against it’s future.
Photos by Kristine Lofgren for Inhabitat