September 17, 2021

Think and Do—What Do We Do About A Record Low Great Salt Lake?

This should be underwater photograph by Amy Eskind This should be underwater photograph by Amy Eskind

In late July 2021, the Great Salt Lake in Utah reached its lowest water level on record, and it has continued dropping since then. On July 23, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gauge at the Saltair boat harbor at the southern end of the Lake recorded the average daily level at 4,191.3 feet (1277.5 meters) above sea level, (asl) the lowest mark since measurements began in 1875. The previous low was set in 1963.NASA Earth Observatory · August 18, 2021 Story by Michael Carlowicz

Behold! Great Salt Lake microbialites! Fondly referred to as the “coral of Great Salt Lake.” These calcium carbonate structures created from groundwater springs inundate the lakebed and play a critical role in the food web of the ecosystem. Microbialites are covered in rich and productive mats comprised of zillions of microbes that provide browse for brine shrimp and brine flies; both of which are critical food sources for more than 10 million migratory birds that come to the Lake to rest, stage, and nest during their migration. They are a bellwether of the health of the Lake. And for obvious reasons, they should indeed be underwater to function in this capacity.

According to Michael Vanden Berg, Energy and Minerals Program Manager—Senior Geologist, Utah Geological Survey in the Utah Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR), it takes years for these productive mats to form. To sustain and promote this critical activity and prevent them from drying up, which can occur within a few short weeks, microbialites need to be submerged in the Lake’s briny broth at an elevation between 4,185’ and 4,195’ asl. With this margin already diminished by the record low elevation of 4,191.3’ and falling, and with predictions of a drier fall water season, this doesn’t bode well for these vital ecosystem contributors. Microbialites are the subject of extensive research because they continue to unlock ecological secrets about Great Salt Lake that can help inform responsible management decisions in our work to sustain this unique ecosystem. But water is key to achieving that goal.

On so many levels we are sharing a collective experience like no other in our lifetime. Among these experiences are the cumulative impacts on Great Salt Lake from water diversions that have occurred since statehood, and that are exacerbated by exceptional drought and climate change which are finally coming home to roost. We’re reading more and more about how the Lake is exhibiting obvious signs of stress. Almost every day without fail someone brings up the dire state of the Lake. Even complete strangers ask me about it. On one hand it’s heartening to know that so many people are interested in it. On the other hand, it’s disheartening to know that this is because its future is in jeopardy. 

What are we going to do? This is like what happened to the Aral Sea, isn’t it? What about all of the birds that depend upon the Lake? Is there dust coming from the exposed lakebed?  How can we get water to the Lake so it doesn’t dry up? 

I find myself troubled by the irony of all of this. Being fully aware of the plight of other saline systems around the world, and being in the presence of scientists, systems managers, academics, industry, government entities, conservationists, and other stakeholders working on systems like the Aral Sea, Lake Urmia and even Owens Lake, I had hoped that this would never happen to Great Salt Lake because we know better. We know how those devastating impacts translated into troubling results. And I had hoped that our commitment to continuing research and sound science would strengthen management practices, justify why the Lake should be included in Utah’s water picture, and would certainly keep us from finding ourselves in the same tragic predicament. Ouch!

As we all know, the Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands in DNR has the jurisdictional responsibility to manage Great Salt Lake in perpetuity as a Public Trust resource for the people of Utah. One of the tools that the Division utilizes to inform its management practices is the Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan. The plan is updated every 10 years to reflect trends and conditions of the Lake’s ecosystem. The March 2013 Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan and Record of Decision focuses on management strategies for declining Lake level conditions.

The Great Salt Lake Level Matrix on p. 333 is one of the insightful tools that came out of the plan. I call it the Great Salt Lake Rosetta Stone because it provides a comprehensive picture of how the dynamics of Lake elevations affect salinity, lakescapes, landscapes, habitats, wildlife, recreation, navigation, industry, and the extensive range of ecosystem services Great Salt Lake provides. Elevations in the Matrix focus on the South Arm/Gilbert Bay of the Lake because this is where the Jordan, Weber/Ogden and Bear Rivers enter the Lake. In the Matrix is a range of elevations that could be characterized as the “sweet spot” where the Lake levels are the most beneficial for the resource and at which most of the ecosystem services can be sustained. This sweet spot is between 4,198’ and 4,205’ asl.

USGS records show that between 1847 and 1930, the average water level in the Lake was 4,202.9’ asl. That level is right in the middle of that sweet spot. That same water level average carried forward from 1930 to 2015, but only because of the extraordinary amounts of snowmelt and rain we experienced in the mid-80’s. Realistically, water levels over the last 20 years have been below the sweet spot, often well below, meaning that most of the Lake’s resources have been and are being impaired.

The Lake’s fluctuations are influenced by a range of variables including temperature (this past summer was the hottest on record), precipitation, snowpack and runoff (shorter and warmer winters are becoming more common), upstream diversions, inflows and timing of same (only 6” compared to an average of 2’ of water got to the Lake this spring), consumptive water use by a growing population in the second driest state in the nation (average daily water consumption per person of 232 gal.), evaporation, and of course climate change. However, even with the influence of climate change on Utah’s water resource, striving to keep the Lake within that sweet spot should be a goal. The difficulty of course is to stay on top of the predictive ebb and flow of the Lake’s elevation (some of us call this breathing of the system) with water management measures to effectively keep water levels in this relatively shallow system within that range. Certainly, proposals like the Bear River Development and prospects of water reuse simply compound and confound the situation. The challenge is that keeping water levels in that range is virtually impossible without the guarantee that water in Great Salt Lake is recognized as a beneficial use under Utah’s Prior Appropriation Water Law. This recognition would allow the system to hold water rights or lease water from existing water right holders. Therein lies the rub!

“We must find ways to balance Utah’s growth with maintaining a healthy Lake. Ecological, environmental and economical balance can be found by working together as elected leaders, agencies, industry, stakeholders and citizens working together,” Brian Steed, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

So here we are with a reality check that is testing our commitment to being good stewards and testing our effectiveness at taking prompt and meaningful actions to address this issue. Which brings me to the December 2020 Recommendations to Ensure Adequate Water Flows to Great Salt Lake and Its Wetlands. This report is an outcome from the Great Salt Lake Resolution (HCR-10) Steering Group representing a diverse group of stakeholders of which FRIENDS was a part. It’s divided into 16 Strategic Opportunities that are organized into 6 focus areas along with 60 specific recommendations to address those opportunities. The expectation from all of this effort is to encourage ongoing discourse among a wide range of interests, fund studies, and generate thoughtful and timely decision-making that will essentially save Great Salt Lake. Access to the full report is located at:

The report was in response to the 2019 Legislative HCR-10 Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake. Unanimously supported by the Legislature and signed by Governor Herbert, the Resolution states: “by taking steps now, Utah will be best-positioned to avoid the kind of degradation and economic harm experienced by other states [and] communities.” Now of course is the key operative of this declaration. And one that we are all impatient to actually see happen.

There is encouraging news however. During the 2021 legislative session, funding was approved for a study of Great Salt Lake groundwater that evaluates the connection between groundwater and the Lake. And funding for a second project will bring local land use authorities and corresponding water suppliers together to identify ways in which coordination between these entities can be improved, as well as provide resources to other land use authorities. Both are good news and important steps in the right direction. Still, we need more projects funded and more actions taken expeditiously to experience the important momentum we believe needs to occur.

So let’s cut to the chase. This is what happened to the Aral Sea, Lake Urmia, and Owens Lake. And now it’s in our own backyard.

I’ll take Director Steed at his word about “maintaining a healthy Lake.” And you can take FRIENDS at our word that we are committed to working effectively through our programs and our engagement with the water community to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. But it’s going to take all of us as stewards for this hemispherically important ecosystem to play a role as well. Contact your legislators/elected officials, and Governor Cox expressing your concern about our declining Lake. Participate in local planning decisions that are shaping your communities and water impacts. Share your concerns through community media sources, and join us on the Hill during the 2022 Utah Legislative Session to speak in support of various legislative bills that are being proposed. We all can make a difference. We have to. Because the Lake doesn’t have the luxury of time. And neither do we.

In saline,