Utah’s Great Salt Lake Is Drying Out

Water levels, the lowest ever measured, are placing migrating birds, local communities and economic development at high risk

Great Salt Lake drying out
Park visitors walk along a section of the Great Salt Lake that used to be underwater at the Great Salt Lake State Park near Magna, Utah.  Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Utah's Great Salt Lake has dwindled below historic levels less than a year ago when last measured in October 2021. After water levels were measured on July 3, the lake's average daily surface water elevation was 4,190 feet. In 1847, when researchers began taking measurements, the lake was at 4,200 feet above sea level, which means that the lake has lost almost ten feet of elevation. The Great Salt Lake is now only 30 feet deep at its deepest point. In the 1980s, the lake's surface area reached 3,300 square miles, now it covers less than 1,000, reports Lauren Leffer for Gizmodo.

Based on historical data, lake levels will continue to decrease until fall or early winter arrives, and the amount of incoming water to the lake equals or exceeds evaporative losses, reports the United States Geological Society in a statement. The lake goes through seasonal cycles of water loss and replenishment after rain and snow melt fills it back up. However, tributaries that used to drain into the lake basin were diverted to meet industry, agricultural, and human needs, per Gizmodo

"It's clear the lake is in trouble," Joel Ferry, Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director, says in a statement. "We recognize more action and resources are needed, and we are actively working with the many stakeholders who value the lake."

Along with reducing the lake's method of replenishment, a climate-change-fueled megadrought choking the Southwest means there is less water all around Utah than there has been in the past 1,200 years. Currently, 100 percent of Utah is in a drought, with 83 percent of the state experiencing extreme drought, Gizmodo reports. Losing the Great Salt Lake could put migrating birds at risk and threaten a lake-based economy worth an estimated 1.3 billion in recreation, mineral extraction, and brine shrimp, also known as sea monkeys, the Guardian's staff reports. Locally, the lake contributes to roughly 7,700 jobs. If the lake were to dry up, about 6,500 people would lose their source of income, CNN's Rachel Ramirez reports.

Christopher Flavelle reports for the New York Times that the drought also could devastate wildlife populations, with flies and brine shrimp dying off, leaving migratory birds without a food source. In a quote for the Times, state legislator Joel Ferry calls it a "potential environmental nuclear bomb."

 "From an economic perspective, the impacts could be pretty substantial," Laura Vernon, the Utah Department of Natural Resources' Great Salt Lake coordinator, tells CNN. "We've also seen, with drying terminal lakes around the world, that respiratory illness increases as lake levels decline, because people are breathing in more of the particulate matter in the air that are blowing around." Terminal lakes like Great Salt Lake have water flow into them but not out of the basin. When strong winds brush over a drying lakebed, they kick up particles, like arsenic, that can be inhaled and cause damage to the lungs or exacerbate other health conditions.

Utah state officials have begun looking toward finding solutions to adapt to or mitigate the Great Salt Lake crisis. "We need to be more aggressive in how we use water and how we manage water in the state," Vernon tells CNN. "We live in one of the driest states in the nation, and we need to act like it. Changes aren't going to happen overnight, but we're hoping that we can make some changes that will bring more water to the lake."

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