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This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.

Declining Water Levels In The Great Salt Lake Spell Economic Trouble For Utah

A photo of the Great Salt Lake.
Emily Allen
The Great Salt Lake is quickly approaching its lowest water level in recorded history.

The Great Salt Lake is reaching its lowest level ever. That brings huge environmental costs, from worse air quality to habitat destruction for migratory birds.

It also affects some important industries in Utah’s economy. Businesses that rely on the Great Salt Lake — recreation, mineral extraction and harvesting brine shrimp eggs — bring roughly $1.3 billionto the state’s economy, according to a 2012 report.

Don Leonard, chairman of the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, said eggs from the lake’s brine shrimp are a crucial food source for the fish and shrimp eaten around the world. About 40% of the world’s brine shrimp eggs come from the lake but with lower water levels, the water gets saltier, which makes it harder for the shrimp to reproduce.

Leonard said less water also means egg harvesters are spending close to $1 million dredging the bottom of the lake in order to get their boats out.

“We need to be able to have our boats go out on the lake, harvest eggs and then bring our eggs back to shore,” he said. “You need so much water to float your boats, right? So as the water level goes down, we have to lower the bottom of the harbor down an equivalent amount.”

Those kinds of costs drive up the price of the eggs and make Utah business less competitive in an increasingly global market.

Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake Coordinator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said the impacts to mining magnesium and other minerals also has ripple effects throughout the economy.

“If you pick up a pop can, if you sit on a stadium bench, all of these materials have elements of the Great Lake in them,” Vernon said.

Minerals from the lake are also used to make car parts, cell phones and fertilizer for crops around the country. Some of the companies that rely on the lake are the country’s largest or only suppliers of certain materials.

The total cost of further water loss is estimated to be around $2 billion a year and more than 6,500 jobs. That doesn't include additional expenses for better water management, protecting migratory bird species and mitigating invasive plant species.

“We've all been watching the lake level as it's gone down and this unanticipated drought has definitely expedited concern,” Vernon said. “It's giving us an opportunity to kind of adapt and maybe look a little more quickly to put some of the strategies in place that we have been talking about over the last couple of years.”

Vernon said the state is looking at 12 primary strategies for protecting the lake, including changes to state law that would promote water conservation, which it doesn’t currently do. Likely all of them will be needed to ensure the Great Salt Lake isn’t depleted altogether, she said.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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