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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.

All your questions about the shrinking Great Salt Lake, answered (by a brine shrimp!)

AP — Great Salt Lake Drought, Sept. 28, 2022
Rick Bowmer
/
AP
State of Utah Department of Natural Resources park ranger Angelic Lemmon walks across reef-like structures called microbialites, exposed by receding waters at the Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, near Salt Lake City.

The Great Salt Lake is in trouble.

Like a lot of things in the 80s, the iconic landmark was at a historic high. Over the last 36 years though, the West’s megadrought, a changing climate and water diversions have taken their toll. In 2022, the terminal lake hit a new low as the rivers that feed it increasingly serve Utah’s burgeoning population.

The dire state of Great Salt Lake hasn’t gone unnoticed. Utah’s lawmakers are trying to act, as are the state’s federal representatives. In the meantime, residents in Salt Lake City and all along the Wasatch Front are beginning to worry about the potential for toxic dust.

All in all, there are a lot more questions than there are answers right now. Especially about how we got into this situation. Owing a lot to the questions you’ve submitted to the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, here’s what a brine shrimp is able to tell us about how we got here.

👇 Scroll or swipe down 👇

Hi! I’m Briony, the brine shrimp. (pronounced BRI-uh-nee) We’re the biggest animals that live in the Great Salt Lake. Just a smidge over a quarter inch!

Brine shrimp are important to the lake. Not only as a barometer of its health, but as an industry. Utah says we’re worth $10 to $60 million.

If anyone knows what’s up with the Great Salt Lake, it’s me. What’s on your mind?

Keep scrolling!

Q: What’s the biggest cause of the lake’s decline?

asks Sergio Ramos in Murray

It’s “people using water,” says Sarah Null, a watershed sciences professor at Utah State University.

She points out that humans divert and consume a lot of water from the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers, which leaves “a very small amount of streamflow going to the lake.”

The majority of the water, about 65%, is diverted for agricultural use, she says. Water efficiency in agriculture would help Great Salt Lake, according to Null. The Utah Legislature recently approved $20 million to do just that.

“But it can’t end there,” she says, “we need to make sure that as we implement conservation, for both agriculture and for urban uses, that the saved water flows directly to Great Salt Lake.”

Q: Is there a target level we’d like to maintain?

asks Tim Heiple in Murray

Yes!

The lake needs to reach an elevation of 4,200 feet for nearly all of the lake’s resources to be healthy, says Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake Coordinator with the Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. Those resources include recreation, bird habitat, wetland conservation and brine shrimp harvesting.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been at an elevation of 4,200 for quite some time. The challenge to bring Great Salt Lake water levels back to this elevation has been heightened by extended droughts and low-water years.

The lake hit 4,190.1 in July 2022. A new record low. Adding 9ft doesn’t seem like much, but to get that spread over 1,700 square miles of the lake would require the equivalent of two Bear Lakes, according to Utah State researcher Sarah Null.

Q: At what point does the lake “die” and is no longer retrievable?

asks Kurt in Salt Lake City

This is a complicated question that requires a complicated answer. Bonnie Baxter, the director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College says, “we don’t know the answer yet.”

However, multiple saline lake systems around the world are currently drying. This means those who are fighting for Great Salt Lake aren’t alone. And previous saline lake restoration efforts can be used as a guide.

Saline levels will continue to rise as water levels shrink. This risks life in the lake.

Microbiolites, cyanobacteria and brine shrimp do best when the saline level is around 12%, according to Baxter. And we all play a critical role in Great Salt Lake’s food chain systems. In fact, the food cycle starts with the bottom-dwelling and free-floating microbes.

Microbiolites and cyanobacteria provide nutrients for the brine shrimp and brine flies. Waterbirds and shorebirds then eat the brine shrimp (EEP!) and brine flies.

The salinity of the lake’s south arm is around 19% right now, Baxter says, “in our lab when we get to about 17%, there’s a big die-off.” This means that life within the lake is at risk of dying off.

While researchers have other concerns about the lake dying (dust emissions and economic impacts), the salt content is most pressing because increased salinity would happen first and lead to the collapse of the food chain, says University of Utah atmospheric sciences professor Kevin Perry.

Q: How much time do we have to turn this around?

asks Scott Richards in Weber County

Shih-Yu Wang, who teaches climate dynamics at Utah State University, says we have “a decade or two” to reverse the lake shrinkage.

While some are focusing on conserving water in the hopes more water will make it to the lake, Wang says one of the lake’s biggest threats is rising global temperatures.

The Earth naturally goes through periods of warming and cooling. However, greenhouse gas emissions from humans have increased how quickly Earth is warming.

“The rate of warming is something that we have never observed,” he says. “In the past, the interglacial period took thousands of years to happen.”

Action against global warming needs to be done on a global scale. But if locals want the lake to survive, fighting against rising temperatures needs to happen here, and soon.

“The only way the warming rate can be stopped is if we reach so-called carbon neutral,” he says. This means that any carbon dioxide released into the air needs to be offset by something “as simple as planting more trees.”

Great Salt Lake: Before and today

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Listen to part 2 of the audio Q&A

Q: How would Utah be affected by the lake’s absence?

asks Jason Williams in Utah

Everything in Utah will be impacted if Great Salt Lake disappears, says Jaimi Butler, former coordinator of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute.

“The problem is, Great Salt Lake isn’t going to just disappear. It will turn into an environmental catastrophe that won’t go away,” she says.

Alkaline dust from the exposed lakebed would worsen air quality for all who live in the region. Increased rates of asthma and cancer could be seen in the Wasatch Front population as a result.

The increase in alkaline dust will also decrease the snowpack Utahns rely on each year, furthering the water crisis.

Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake Coordinator for the state, worries about the economic losses Utah will experience if the lake dries.

“The economic revenue generated by mineral extraction, the brine shrimp industry, and recreational activities will be gone. Around 7,000 Utahns will lose their jobs,” says Vernon.

Utah will lose the annual $1.3 billion revenue from these industries without the lake. Future costs to fix the dried lake will add to the economic stress if the lake dries.

The increase in alkaline dust will also decrease the snowpack Utahns rely on each year, furthering the water crisis.

Q: How much air pollution is already happening?

asks Barbara Larson in Washington

So far, this year, “there's only been a couple of days where we've monitored values that are above the federal standard” associated with the wind dust events, says Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

But as more of the lake bed becomes exposed, more dust storms will occur, says Laura Vernon, Utah’s Great Salt Lake Coordinator. In fact, Utah State University researchers found last year was the dustiest yet. They’ve found various toxic pollutants in the dust, such as copper, sulfur and phosphorus.

Kevin Perry’s team at the University of Utah has studied lake dust plumes for the past 5 years and discovered unsafe levels of arsenic in some of the exposed lake bed. This could cause health problems if humans breathe dust blown from Great Salt Lake’s exposed bed on a regular basis.

As many know, the Wasatch Front suffers poor air quality during the winter from inversions, and in the summer from ozone. Spring and fall dust storms could leave the area with almost constant poor air quality.

Q: What is the future of waterfowl and wildlife impact?

asks Gary Parrish in Layton

Great Salt Lake is home to a wide range of creatures, like the migrating American white pelicans and brine shrimp! The lake’s salinity is the biggest threat.

“Each species has its own restrictive salinity,” says Bonnie Baxter, Director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, “it can’t live higher than a certain percentage of salt in the water … We have to be really careful about that.”

Higher levels of salt could change the diet of shorebirds and brine shrimp. Baxter says this is because higher saline levels will cause less diversity and availability in the invertebrates and algae they eat.

Shorebirds in the freshwater wetlands surrounding the lake could also be impacted if the lake continues shrinking.

“We’re worried about their habitat becoming more saline or losing water, drying up,” Baxter says.

This story was reported and written by McCaulee Blackburn of Salt Lake Community College’s Amplify Utah and originally published by the Great Salt Lake Collective. KUER’s Rakel Davis provided the illustrations and the digital presentation was the work of Jim Hill. Elaine Clark provided editing support for both the audio and digital versions.

Rakel is an illustrator and digital producer in the KUER newsroom.
Jim is an editor and digital content manager in the KUER newsroom.
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