This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
It's late November and Great Salt Lake measures 4,190.6 feet above sea level. When was the last time the lake was this low? Maybe never.
The broad lake's surface level has been falling fitfully since the last ice age, 16,000 years ago. It reached its last record low level of 4,191.35 feet in 1963 when Utah enjoyed a population of fewer than 1 million residents. The lake eclipsed that record this September, and has dropped steadily since then. It's likely the record will be broken weekly now until a snowy winter stops its gradual decline. The prediction of an El Niño weather pattern this year though, makes it unlikely that we'll have a snowy winter. After some mediocre precipitation and runoff, Great Salt Lake will continue its downward journey.
Why should we care about a stinky, salty lake anyway? Well, for one reason, its broad surface area when full, anyway greatly moderates weather along the Wasatch Front. For a shallow lake like the Great Salt Lake, a few inches lost in depth translate into miles of surface area disappearing. Without the lake's huge area absorbing sunlight, increasing humidity and re-radiating energy, the regional climate is altered. Nearby areas become hotter in the summer, colder in the winter, and drier.
For another reason, the Great Salt Lake is essential habitat for wildlife, especially some 8 million migratory birds represented by a remarkable 230 different species. Some of these migrants travel to the lake from as far away as Chile, Siberia and the Arctic to refuel before continuing on their long journeys.
Another reason to worry involves the dust kicked up from the exposed and drying lake bed. It's nothing you'd want to breathe. The lake sediment contains large amounts of heavy metals such as mercury, selenium, arsenic and others. This windborne dust, carried by the westerly winds, joins our inversions and further sullies our crummy winter air. The grit also settles on the Wasatch Mountain snowpack, absorbing sunlight and hastening melting.
A declining lake is also changing the regional topography. As anyone can see from a high spot around the lake, Antelope Island State Park is no longer an island. Coyotes and other predators now walk across the dry lake bed to plunder nesting birds on Egg Island and other once safe rookeries.
Great Salt Lake also contributes significantly to the region's economy. Boating recreation and tours are big business on the lake, at least when it's full enough to float boats. Some 250,000 to 300,000 people visit Great Salt Lake Park annually.
Earlier this year, at Great Salt Lake Marina, dozens of stranded boats had to be plucked from the shallow water before they settled into the mud or toppled over on their keels. Antelope Island's high and dry harbor has already closed. Who will visit the lake now with limited boating and salt water that borders on sludgy brine? Additionally, salt and mineral harvesting becomes more difficult with lower water, and commercial brine shrimp production for fish farms, may suffer from a lake that has become too salty for the little critters to survive.
To be sure, some of Great Salt Lake's decline is a natural consequence of a warming and drying climate. But much of the blame for the falling lake lies with us. In our century-and-half effort to turn the desert into Ohio, we've diverted every tributary stream from the Bear River in the north to the many rivers that fill Utah Lake in the south in order to green lawns and golf courses and provide water for cities, industry, and farms. In the process, Great Salt Lake became less great over time.
Utah has changed tremendously in that half a century since the lake was this low in the early 1960s. Our population has more than tripled to nearly 3 million people. Frighteningly, it is expected to double again by mid-century. What do water managers propose to handle this burgeoning population? Additional dams and reservoirs, and a grand scheme to divert most of the rest of the Bear River, the Great Salt Lake's largest tributary. If such a project (estimated to cost more than $2 billion) were to happen, the Bear River Refuge would likely dry up, and the Great Salt Lake would shrink to insignificance. We'd also pay loads more in water rates, property taxes and impact fees.
Instead, we should look not at increasing the supply of water, but at decreasing the demand to accommodate future population growth, maintain healthy ecosystems, and importantly, save Great Salt Lake. As the authors of the recent Utah Press book, "Desert Water" argue, this will require embracing a new water ethic in Utah and to become water wise right now.
Eric C. Ewert, Ph.D., is a professor of geography at Weber State University.