Extreme Drought as Iconic Great Salt Lake in Utah is completely drying out leaving livelihoods of millions of people and animals in suspense

The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper on Monday began using a new map of Utah that features a fresh depiction of the Great Salt Lake in response to the drastic shrinking the iconic body of water has undergone over the last 30 years. The change to the map came with the assistance of graphics artists at AccuWeather.

A combination of river diversions and the impacts from the megadrought across the American West has driven the lake to 4,191.3 feet above sea level over the summer – the lowest levels the lake had seen since the USGS began keeping records back in 1847 – and levels continued to fall until storms moved in and agricultural irrigation ended for the season. From Oct. 15 to Oct. 18, the lake’s elevation had dropped to 4,190.3. Currently, the lake is less than half of its average size – a mere 937 square miles with a volume of 7.7 million acre-feet.

Experts believe it will be a long, difficult road to get the lake back to just its average water levels due to the strain placed on it by water diversion, which is exacerbated by drought.

Great Salt Lake is disappearing from Utah maps. Via EOS
Great Salt Lake is disappearing from Utah maps. Via EOS

This led journalists and editors at The Salt Lake Tribune, which was founded in 1871 and is among the oldest continuously published newspapers west of the Mississippi River, to question how current maps depicting the lake at its average size “have kept us from seeing the impacts of droughts, full bore.” This assessment by editors at the Salt Lake Tribune prompted them to ask AccuWeather mapmakers, whom the paper partners with, to redraw the lake.

Our maps stay the same for the average level of the lake, and as a news organization, it doesn’t make sense anymore,” Grant Burningham, managing editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, told AccuWeather National Weather Reporter Bill Wadell. “We know the lake is smaller. We know it’s about half the size that it used to be and we have a chance to raise awareness nationally and locally when hopefully there are still some things to do to change the course of the lake, which, right now, frankly, is in a death spiral.

Iconic Great Salt Lake is disappearing form US maps. Google Earth/Landsat/Copernicus
Iconic Great Salt Lake is disappearing form US maps. Google Earth/Landsat/Copernicus

Using satellite images chosen by The Salt Lake Tribune as a reference, AccuWeather’s graphics department drafted a version of the lake that showed a more current shoreline rather than how it may have looked 30 years ago. The original outline of the lake remains on the new map, but the blue shape depicting the actual water that would normally fill it in, iconic to the state’s locals, has changed.

We’re really hoping that we have a moment here where everybody takes a look at their maps,” Burningham said, referring to other news organizations, “and says, ‘Wait a minute, this big, beautiful blue spot here which I’ve seen on a globe since I was a kid is now just a brown puddle. And it’s evaporating. And if we don’t do something, it’s going to go away.’

The new map of the Great Salt Lake. By The Salt Lake Tribune
The new map of the Great Salt Lake. By The Salt Lake Tribune

Daniel Bedford, professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability at Weber State and Director of the Honors Program, has always described the lake as a giant inkblot, like a Rorschach test.

You look at that inkblot and you can see what you want to see in it,” he told Wadell. “It’s kind of reflecting ourselves back at us. And the future of the Great Salt Lake is really very much in our hands.

Terminal ‘ill’ lake

The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, meaning that it is the last stop for the rivers and snowmelt that feed it. But over the years, river diversion for agriculture has taken “the lion’s share of water” as Lynn De Freitas, executive director of the non-profit Friends of Great Salt Lake, told Wadell.

Despite the lake being an essential cornerstone for the area’s economy, whether through tourism or the brine shrimp industry, not to mention its importance to the ecosystem, the lake isn’t considered by Utah law as beneficial, De Freitas said.

The recognition of water coming into Great Salt Lake, by many, is still recognized as wasted,” De Freitas said.

A lot of the problem has been that the lake drinks last, right? New development gets water. People who live here get water. Agriculture gets water,” Burningham said. “Utah as a state is currently investigating whether or not it should put another dam on the Bear River, which would drop the lake an additional 2 feet. It’s hard to see how that wouldn’t be the death knell for this lake.

Utah Legislature passed the Bear River Development Act back in 1991, allowing the Division of Water Resources to construct reservoirs along the river and its tributaries. According to the Division of Water Resources, conservation efforts and new technology, such as secondary meters and optimization and efficiency projects, have pushed the projected need for the project back from 2015 to 2045-2050.

Water diversion problem

Kevin Perry, an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah who has studied the impacts on the lake, told Wadell that the ongoing drought accounts for only 6 of the 17 feet the lake is down from its long-term average. The other 11 feet is due to water diversions, which he stressed were conscious choices that are made about how water is used in Utah.

A study from Utah State University identified that 30% more water than is sustainable is being diverted from the lake’s intake, Perry said. In order to make up that deficit and remain sustainable in any given year, he added, the Salt Lake region would need to have 130% of a normal snowpack.

If we have an average amount of precipitation, the lake will drop. If we have a drought situation, the lake drops even further,” Perry said. “The odds are definitely against the lake right now, and we need to collectively change our behavior, change our water use policies, so that we can end up evening the odds so that the lake is back to a natural ecosystem that will ebb and flow depending on precipitation as opposed to constantly having water siphoned out underneath of it.

Add a dusty ARSENIC problem

The dust kicked up from the dry lakebed has also threatened to exacerbate the situation that exposed it. When sediment is picked up by the wind and carried over to the nearby mountains, it’s deposited over the snow, Bedford explained. The dust is darker in color, making the snowpack less reflective and more absorbant to sunlight, which, in turn, makes it more prone to melting than it otherwise would have been.

The lakebed dust not only finds its way to the snowpack but also into the nearby cities. Perry, whose research focuses on air quality, has spent the last five years trying to answer the question of just what’s in the dust that’s coming from the Great Salt Lake.

For two years, he biked out to collect soil samples every 500 meters on all 800 square miles of the exposed lakebed. He took those samples back to a laboratory where he examined them and determined what was in the soil.

Arsenic, in particular, caught his attention.

The samples had been taken from parts of the dried-up lakebed that had been exposed for anywhere from a few months to 20 years.

Every single measurement that I took out on the Great Salt Lake had higher arsenic concentrations than would be recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Perry said, surmising that due to the measurements being above that limit, the implication is that the mineral was a naturally-occurring element in the area that erosion from the mountains ends up depositing in the lake.

Arsenic, a natural component that occurs in many minerals, is a carcinogenic compound, and chronic exposure to it over a period of decades can lead to increases in lung cancer. However, even if the dust didn’t contain arsenic, it would still pose a health hazard if the concentration was high enough, Perry added.

You breathe it [a large amount of dust], you have an immediate response. You end up in the hospital or the emergency room as opposed to the long-term chronic exposure to the arsenic that I was talking about before,” Perry said. “So, what I’m actually more concerned about right now is these acute impacts of these short-lived dust storms that bring very high concentrations of dust into the adjacent areas, exposing more than a million people to potentially unhealthy air quality.

Nearly 3 million people live around the Great Salt Lake.

Not far from Utah, Owens Lake serves as a small glimpse of the impact lakebed dust can have on air quality.

Water from the Owens River, which fed the lake, was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, leading to the lake drying up. For 50 years, the dry lakebed of Owens Lake has been the largest source of dust in North America despite the $2 billion put into trying to mitigate the dust without adding water back into the lake.

The Great Salt Lake is more than 10 times the size of Owens Lake, and Perry warned that it is a potentially larger dust source that would affect millions of people who live adjacent to it.

My long-term concern is that as the lake continues to shrink, it will expose more of this lakebed sediment, the frequency of these dust storms will increase, and the severity of those dust storms will increase, and it will become an issue for all the people in Northern Utah,” Perry said.