We have been warned about lakes drying up many times now, not excluding the Great Salt Lake which experts predicted to dry up within 5 years.
The experts’ concerns weren’t baseless, as the water levels were at their historic low last year.
But after all that concerns and alarms which were raised, nature did the unexpected.
Utah saw the biggest snowpack in recorded history. The melting snow has lifted water levels in the lake, about 4ft to 5ft from the lowest levels recorded.
According the National Integrated Drought Information System, this water comes after a wet winter in the state, where it experienced its biggest snowpack and the seventh wettest January to April season since at least 1895.
Nature pulling pranks on us?
Climate change that happened thousands of years ago reduced the depth of Lake Bonneville from nearly 1,000 feet to today’s average of only 16 feet for the Great Salt Lake. It is a massive reduction, yes, but the lake still contains nearly 4.6 cubic miles of water.
Water in Lake Bonneville drained to the Snake River before 13,000 years ago. However, The Great Salt Lake remains to be a terminal lake where water flows in but doesn’t flow out.
Ever since being “independent,” the Great Salt Lake exists due to a balance between inflow from rainfall and rivers competing with evaporation by the sun.
When we’re talking about competing with evaporation by the sun, the topic can switch to more evaporation caused by today’s climate change. Now, the warming of the planet is giving the Salt Lake City area hotter summers which does increase evaporation. And the lower the lake gets, the faster it evaporates.
Additionally, precipitation that results in rain instead of snow means that water runs off faster and doesn’t recharge underground aquifers enough.
However, some other experts believe that, instead of climate change, water usage is the greatest threat to this lake. The sun can indeed heat and evaporate the water; but so long as there’s an inflow of water, the lake will fluctuate as opposed to disappearing completely.
The thing is, humans increasingly take the water for other purposes.
Due to water diversion, as much as two-thirds of the potential river inflow never reaches the lake. Farmers and residents are using more water than ever before, and over the last three years, the lake has received less than a third of its natural streamflow. As a result, the lake is shrinking.
And in the concerning previous year, the lake’s surface dropped to an all-time low because it wasn’t recharged by rivers.
Concerns for the lake to be drying up
It’s understandable for experts, environmentalists, and nature lovers to be alarmed about the low water levels because of many reasons.
For casual enjoyers, this lake is a tourist attraction—people can do all sorts of water sports in the lake or simply enjoy the breathtaking view of Utah.
Observers and conservationists often come here to see migratory birds; the lake’s wetlands are important wildlife habitat and productive feeding sites. Lower water levels would also mean there would be more competition for space and food. And, if the wetlands are gone, we won’t be seeing the beauty of those migratory birds anymore.
Aside from the views and perks from tourism, the hypothetically dried-up lake may be dangerous to all life forms. The lakebed is rife with minerals that can be hazardous to breathe in. If dried up, there will be more dust storms that pose health risks.
According to Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Great Salt Lake, “It’s not pretty—it’s a lot of heavy metals.”
In addition, since the lake’s water is too salty for irrigation or drinking, the lake is home to brine shrimp—or in simpler words, sea monkeys. The creature is important for commercial fish food, and it has supported thousands of jobs, providing more than $1.5 billion in revenue annually.
To tie back to the migratory birds, the shrimps are an important food source for them. If the water level gets too low which concentrates the salt levels too much, the whole system could collapse.
If the main problem is water usage, what can be done?
Benjamin Abbott, a professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University, said that most of the lake’s decline is attributable to irrigation. Therefore, there should be more efforts from agriculture to reverse that trend.
Abbott added that most of the irrigated farmland in Utah grows alfalfa or other pasture crops, which are used to feed beef cattle. So, water users of Utah must develop a plan to use less water so that more can flow into the lake.
A while ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made headlines when it announced that it would donate 20,000 acre-feet of water annually to prop up the lake.
This was met with different responses. One side saying that it’s just a drop in the ocean, while the other suggests that this could prompt the big water users to make similar contributions or cutbacks.
Since water diversion is the main drive to the lake’s drop in water levels, the latter side makes sense while also being optimistic about the future.
The Salt Lake City area is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. If more water users direct it back to the lake, there won’t be as much fear of dried-up lake.
The Great Salt Lake is not a lost cause yet
After the concerning water levels and after a wet winter in Utah that brought them back to average, it gives us a more positive outlook about the state of the lake. And so far, things seem to be looking bright.
For one, boats were brought back to the Great Salt Lake Park and Marina earlier this month.
It was the first time that the boats returned to the marina since being pulled in August 2022 when the lake was drying up. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the lake’s water level measured 4,193.8 feet, which was enough for the boats to go back.
Moreover, Utah’s brine shrimp industry is no longer under threat, thanks to the rising water level.
According to Tim Hawkes, vice president of the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, when the lake levels dropped amid the drought, the shrimps were stressed from large amounts of salinity. In turn, they produced lower-quality eggs. Thankfully, things are looking better.
“The conditions are much better (now that) those salinity levels have come down,” Hawkes said. “We’re cautiously optimistic as we move forward, but we know there’s a lot of work that remains to be done,” Hawkes said.
While the Great Salt Lake State Park still considers that the water level is still low, the return of the boats is still a welcome sight. As we know, some had believed that the area would never recover from receding water levels.
There must be actions regardless
Although there’s more water than last year, some experts don’t believe that this level is ideal, and that this is a temporary relief. “We’re still in a megadrought and we can’t be complacent,” de Freitas said.
Long-term drought along with overuse of existing water is still a looming threat for the Great Salt Lake. Therefore, immediate actions which are applicable in the long run are still the priority to prevent the lake from reaching other records of low-level water in the future.
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, The Salt Lake City area is considered to be in a complete drought area.
“This buys another year, another two. It doesn’t solve the problem but it gives us the breathing room we need to implement comprehensive solutions. I think we need to be really wise how to use this gift,” Abbott said.