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Utah’s Great Salt Lake could learn from Iran’s Lake Urmia

The salt-encrusted eastern shoreline of the Great Salt Lake's northern arm, as seen from the air, Aug. 3, 2022
David Childs
The salt-encrusted eastern shoreline of the Great Salt Lake's northern arm, as seen from the air, Aug. 3, 2022

A new study from Utah State University researchers, published in September, found that the Great Salt Lake faces the same problems as another saline lake in Iran — high saline levels and less water.

It compares the Great Salt Lake to Lake Urmia, which faces similar problems but on a more severe level.

Starting around the beginning of the millennium, water development projects around Lake Urmia diverted fresh water to agriculture and everyday use for communities. As the water was overused the lake dried up, concentrating its saline levels and devastating its ecosystem.

In comparison, the Great Salt Lake’s fading trajectory is coming at a slower pace.

The lake houses a delicate ecosystem, from microbialite reefs to brine shrimp to waterfowl. As salinity increases, all kinds of life struggle to thrive.

We have brine shrimp and brine fly larvae that live in the lake in the Gilbert Bay. And they're pretty tolerant of high salt levels,” said Utah State University Researcher Wayne Wurtsbaugh. “But it keeps going higher and higher, and so they're becoming more and more stressed, so they can't produce as many eggs or they don't grow as large.”

Right now brine shrimp are uncomfortably living in about 18% salinity. Scientists say a healthy salinity level sits around 12-15% salt.

Research coming out of Weber State University looked at the lake’s microbialite reefs, or large clusters of microbes that live in the lake. In 2021, those had been able to recover from the impacts of low water and bleaching. Now, however, the microbialites are not able to heal as quickly.

Brine shrimp and flies use the microbialites as a food source and a nesting ground, and birds eat the brine shrimp and flies. When one piece begins to fail, the whole system is at risk, said Utah State University’s Wurtsbaugh.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources has added rock filler to the north side of the lake to discourage the brine shrimp from moving into the saltier water, said Spokesperson Laura Vernon.

The USU study also mentions the impacts of a drying lake on industry. Vernon is worried about Utah’s brine shrimp companies and how they will fare if the situation continues to deteriorate.

“The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council commissioned a study that looked at the economic impacts of a drying lake. And the conclusion was that as lake levels continued to decrease, we could see economic losses totaling $1.7 to $2.2 billion annually and a loss of over 6,500 jobs,” Vernon said.

Between recreation, industry and wildlife, the loss of the resource would be devastating economically and ecologically.

Wurtsbaugh said the Great Salt lake is not yet at a “point of no return.” He noted that better managing water development and having Utahns participate in water conservation efforts can help.

But with climate change threatening even more water loss to the lake, Wurtsbaugh said it’s on Utahns to take action.

“Of course, [climate change is] a worldwide problem, which is more difficult to tackle, although we have to do our part. But we can do the part about water conservation here in Utah,” he said.

Elle Cabrera is a former KUER reporter
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