July 13, 2021

Will We Choose to Save the Great Salt Lake?

In this three-part series, we'll explore the complex story of a natural wonder whose fate will be decided on our watch.

The Nature Conservancy – July 13, 2021

In 1991, writer Terry Tempest Williams introduced millions of readers to a place unlike any other. In her acclaimed novel, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Williams evokes a Great Salt Lake that is ethereal and overpowering. Her story unfolds in the 1980s when the Lake rose to historic levels, flooding Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge—a mirror to the swell of the author’s grief as her mother succumbed to cancer. 

Thirty years later, such a rise in the Lake’s salty waters is almost unimaginable. Today, it is the Great Salt Lake itself that is dying.

Utah’s inland sea, the largest saline lake in the western hemisphere, has always ebbed and flowed in a natural fluctuation vital to its complex ecosystem. Yet what’s happening now is something different.  The Lake, at near record low water levels, is on a steady downward trajectory, depleted by increasing diversions to accommodate growing cities upstream. A changing climate and frequent drought years are not helping.

The same year that Refuge was published, the Great Salt Lake earned its designation as a site of "Hemispheric Importance" by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. John Neill, an avian biologist with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), underscores it: “This is the highest rank of importance and one of only seven site designations in the contiguous United States.” For migratory shorebirds, the Great Salt Lake’s value is hard to overstate. It is an outsized, vital link in an increasingly fragile network of habitats—a life-giving, desert oasis that is fading away. 

There are red flags for humans as well. Alarming ones. The deterioration of an ecosystem so vast and unique has ripple effects that play out far beyond its namesake city. The declining Lake threatens air quality, mountain snowpack and watershed health, thousands of jobs and industries with global reach.

Part 1: Nature's Warning

Desiccation Under Our Noses

How did we get here, so far from the flooded marshes in Williams’ memoir? Change has always been the Great Salt Lake’s specialty.  The Lake is dynamic (and, as a whole, roughly four times saltier than the ocean) because it has no outlet. Fresh water from the Bear, Weber, Ogden and Jordan Rivers feeds into the Lake, but no water flows out. As water evaporates, salt and minerals are left behind. The Lake is also vast but shallow. Stretching 75 miles long and 35 miles wide, it reaches only 33 feet at its deepest points. A remnant of a prehistoric Lake Bonneville, the Great Salt Lake is spread thinly across the bottom of this ancient basin, and it is constantly “breathing”—reacting to wet and dry years by filling up and expanding and then evaporating and recoiling.   

Utah is one of the driest states, so precipitation here is always precious. Yet with all the variable wet and dry years of Utah’s past, one constant has emerged: the state’s population growth, and its increasing demands for water. The fourth fastest growing state in the nation, just since 2000 Utah has added more than 650,000 people. To feed the growing needs of cities and agriculture, more and more water is diverted before it reaches the Great Salt Lake.

In 2017, Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a professor emeritus of watershed science at Utah State University co-published a ground-breaking paper in Nature Geoscience. His data showed that since the arrival of the 19th century pioneers, there has been a persistent reduction in the water supply to the Lake, decreasing its elevation by 11 feet, decreasing its volume by 48 percent and exposing approximately 50 percent of the lakebed. Four years later, the problem has worsened.

“For years, this complex system has been functional and resilient,” says Marcelle Shoop, who is the Director of the Saline Lakes Program for the National Audubon Society. “We’re just now reaching the point where growth, water demands, and climate change could truly threaten that resiliency and lead to irreversible consequences.”

Utah’s growth trend is not likely to slow, and Shoop explains it has been joined by another, even more daunting trend: climate change. Predictions for hotter and drier years ahead will only exacerbate and accelerate the Lake’s decline.  Shoop notes the Great Salt Lake’s plight is not unique.  She points to a 2017 Audubon study that revealed: "Nearly all saline lakes in the Intermountain West have decreased in size and increased in salinity as a result of the growing demand for water from agriculture, industry, and urban users as well as from climate change."  

But even among the saline lakes, the Great Salt Lake stands out.  The salty elephant in the room.

A Lake Like No Other

Scientists and conservationists have long known the Great Salt Lake’s value. It is one of only a few places on Earth that can meet the food and shelter needs of millions of birds traveling along the Eastern Spur of the Pacific flyway—a migratory route spanning the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Winging their way from places as far as South America and northern Canada, up to ten million birds are drawn to the Lake each year—many representing the largest gatherings of certain species in the world.

Indeed, in terms of bird stats, the Lake is hard to beat. In one single spring day, more than half a million Wilson’s phalaropes—the world's largest staging concentration—have been counted on the Lake. As many as 4.7 million eared grebes, over half of the North American population come here every fall. And the list goes on: 240,000 red-necked phalaropes, one of North America’s largest breeding colonies of American white pelicans, 250,000 American avocets and Earth’s largest breeding population of California gulls. Those totals don’t capture the many other types of shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds—including ibis, herons, cormorants and terns—that also rely on the Lake each year.

UDWR avian biologist John Neill is quick to point out that behind all of the jaw-dropping numbers are hundreds of fascinating, individual stories. “The Wilson's phalaropes visit Great Salt Lake to feed,” he says. “They consume enough food to double their weight and undergo an energetically taxing feather molt, and then their fat reserves power a non-stop flight to Ecuador or Peru—a distance of over 3,400 miles!” 

What’s drawing the birds here?  The Lake’s billions of salt-loving brine flies and brine shrimp provide a critical, nutritious food source for many birds on their migratory journey.  But it’s not just the Lake waters that are important—it’s the mix of lands and waters along the Lake’s shore which form the mosaic of salt content, habitats and food sources that truly make this a bird paradise. Some birds use the Lake as stop-over, some as a breeding ground, and some as a safe wintering habitat.  For each species, though, the Lake translates to one thing: survival.

Birds Running Out of Options

A shrinking Lake, then, naturally means big trouble for birds. The water drop is triggering changes throughout the Lake’s intricate web of life. In a complex series of interactions that researchers are still studying, the Lake’s water levels, salinity levels, nutrient levels, vegetation and inhabitant lifecycles are all interdependent. Each element, and each species of birds, engages with the Lake’s resources in a unique way. Since the Lake has always been naturally dynamic, the birds are used to adapting to different lake levels—but only to a point.

Brian Tavernia, Saline Lakes Ecologist with Audubon, explains: “year-to-year fluctuations and long-term declines in lake level affect the amount, timing, and location of wetland habitats for birds. It’s assumed that birds have flexibility to respond to these changes by moving to track habitat at the lake, but this tactic works only as long as some of their required habitat remains at the lake.”

Biologist Bonnie Baxter and Jaimi Butler, who run Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute in Salt Lake City, are leading research on topics such as the Lake’s halophiles (bacteria) and microbial diversity. The two recently edited a comprehensive book about the biology of the Great Salt Lake. Part of the book outlines what the downward trajectory of water levels means to various species of birds. To summarize, the Lake’s lower water levels can change and eliminate feeding or nesting habitat. Receding waters can also open up land bridges, allowing predators to access bird nests that were previously protected by water. Finally, lower water levels mean higher salinity levels, dictating which creatures can tolerate different areas—and impacting the food chain. Already, the book notes, “recent bird surveys reveal a loss in numbers of critical species in the Great Salt Lake system.”

Take, for example, American white pelicans. One of the Western Hemisphere’s largest nesting colonies of these birds can be found on Gunnison Island, in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake. Avian biologist John Neill explained it this way for Utah Public Radio: “…if it [the Lake’s water] drops too low, the island becomes a peninsula and is accessible by land either by coyotes or people that might cause disturbance. Even just one coyote at the wrong time of year can cause the whole colony to abandon.”

For shorebirds, including those long-distant travelers like curlews, avocets, plovers and phalaropes, the shrinking Lake is also a dire situation. That’s because few—if any—other places can provide the mix of habitat and food they need to survive their migrations. As the Great Salt Lake diminishes, so do their options. “Even before a habitat completely disappears at Great Salt Lake,” says Tavernia, “we can expect to see potential negative effects of individuals crowding into smaller and smaller habitat remnants, such as increased disease transmission or competition for food resources.”

In 2019, a National Audubon Society assessment projected we could lose up to two-thirds of North America's bird species by the year 2100.  The fate of the Great Salt Lake—one of Earth’s most vital bird habitats—could play a significant role in the realization of this grim future.

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Coming Soon, Part 2: People Need the Lake They Don't Love

“Not too long ago, my view of the Great Salt Lake didn't differ much from that of a friend who described it as a ‘giant stinky mudhole,’ says Representative Tim Hawkes, a Republican state legislator from Centerville, Utah.  “I had no idea of its value and figured that any water that made it into the main body of the Lake was wasted because the water was so salty as to be good for nothing.” 

Hawkes, who is now General Counsel to Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative and is leading efforts in the Utah State Legislature to enact policy changes to protect the Lake, knows his dismal first impression is not uncommon.  But Hawkes had an awakening, and he’s on a mission to share it with his fellow legislators...

Click here to view this story on The Nature Conservancy website.