Great Salt Lake

Salty lakes are disappearing around the world and we’re to blame

October 29, 2017
Ann Neville, left, and Deb Drain search for shorebirds on the south end of the Great Salt Lake on Friday, July 28, 2017. The local chapter of the National Audubon Society preserves pockets of land along the south end of the lake in order to protect bird habitat. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

LEIA LARSEN • Standard-Examiner Staff

This is the introduction to a multi-part series, telling the stories of four saline lakes in the West and what they have in common with the Great Salt Lake. Part I, on Owens Lake in California, will publish in the Standard-Examiner Monday, Oct. 30.

Sometimes it’s hard to get one person to understand the ripple effects of their actions.

People don’t feel personally responsible for the cause and effect of turning on a tap or sprinkler and depleting a water supply, said Ann Neville, Northern Mountains regional director of the Nature Conservancy.

“What we do with water in our everyday lives affects the environment,” she said. “There are some really great people working hard to make that connection, but for some reason it hasn’t stuck.”

While that dissonance is part of the Great Salt Lake’s story, it’s much bigger than that. It’s the story of salt lakes throughout the world, particularly in the arid West.

Click on the numbers to interact with the map.
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Disappearing Saline Lakes in the U.S.
Lake Abert, OregonMono Lake, CaliforniaOwens Lake, CaliforniaGreat Salt Lake, UtahLahontan Wetlands, Nevada

Lake Abert, Oregon

Lake Abert in eastern Oregon nearly dried up in 2014, causing brine shrimp populations to crash and a significant drop in visits from migratory birds.

Read our story on Lake Abert to find out more.

Mono Lake, California

Mono Lake sits 40 feet lower with half the volume than it would have naturally. Its decline is a result of diversions on the lake’s freshwater tributary streams. Those diversions pipe water 350 miles south down an aqueduct to Los Angeles. But the situation at Mono Lake could’ve been much worse.

Read our story on Mono Lake to find out more.

Owens Lake, California

Dust billows off the dried bed of Owens Lake in Inyo County, California in March 2010. The lake dried after water diversion from the City of Los Angeles and became the largest source of PM 10 pollution in the United States.

Read our story on Owens Lake to find out more.

Great Salt Lake, Utah

The decline of Utah’s largest lake, which has no outlet, would have rippling impacts on the area’s wildlife. But waters feeding the lake are important for the state’s agricultural industry, too.

Explore our series "Losing the Great Salt Lake" to find out more.

Lahontan Wetlands, Nevada

Like the Great Salt Lake, the Lahontan wetlands are recognized as a site of hemispheric importance for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, supporting populations of American avocets, American white pelicans and white-faced ibis.

Read our story on the Lahontan Wetlands to find out more.

Salt lakes are important for migrating birds, and in many cases they’re important for aquaculture and mineral industries.

For humans, they herald alarming changes happening in the environment — changes that could be disastrous for the economy and human well-being.

The biggest threat to these salty lakes is people using too much water. A second threat is the consequences of a warming climate.

Many salty lakes are faring far worse than the Great Salt Lake, which gives Utahns some insight on what they might expect if the desiccation continues. There’s the loss of wildlife habitat and recreational values, but an even scarier prospect for residents of the Wasatch Front is the human health disaster caused by caustic lakebed dust.

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“Water development is drying up a lot of salt lakes around the world and those lakes are important,” said Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a retired Utah State University professor.

Wurtsbaugh spent his career studying lakes. He’s the lead author of a new report, “Decline of the world’s saline lakes,” published Monday, Oct. 23, in the journal Nature Geoscience.

It's happening to Iran's Lake Urmia. It's happening to California’s Salton Sea. The Great Salt Lake is one of the only saline lakes in the world with a long-term record of its elevations, going back 160 years — a useful dataset for teasing out long-term change.

“If you’re only studying a lake for 40 years, those big up and down cycles could hide an unnatural downward trend,” Wurstbaugh said.

Wurtsbaugh’s study also used tree ring data from ancient wood — cross-sections from old trees can unlock the unwritten account of what happened in the environment long ago.

He found the Great Salt Lake elevation has steadily dropped over time, at least since the Mormon Pioneers settled in the Wasatch Front.

While there were periods of drought and flood, the amount of rain that should have flowed to the lake over time remained more or less the same.

He found Utahns’ water consumption has lowered the Great Salt Lake by 11 feet and swallowed up nearly half its volume.

Even with last winter’s mega-snowfall, the Great Salt Lake now sits only 1.27 feet higher than its elevation at the same time last year, when it sat at the brink of a record low. *

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The same pattern is happening everywhere.

“It’s like for every lake in the West and river in the West ... there’s way more allocated to use than there is water available,” said Johnnie Moore, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana who contributed to Wurtsbaugh’s study.

We plan to divert more. Water managers are pushing the Bear River dam project, which would tap the lake’s largest tributary to allow for more agricultural and urban growth in Utah.

“Rather than developing water such as the Bear River water development, we need to be looking to replace some of the water we’ve been diverting, finding ways to conserve, principally in agriculture,” Wurtsbaugh said. “That’s going to be a hard pill for water users to accept.”

It isn’t just agriculture sucking salty lakes dry. In California, Mono Lake, Owens Lake and the Salton Sea have all been tapped for booming cities hundreds of miles away.

“People are getting very concerned we’re rapidly reaching a tipping point,” Moore said. “They’re feeling a little desperate. These saline lakes come and go, they change in salinity, but not all at once. Not in the length in time they’re doing it now.”

The Audubon Society published their own research over the summer about the loss of saline lakes in the West. Their report, “Water and Birds in the Arid West: Habitats in Decline,” synthesizes a collection of scientific studies from scientists like Moore and Wurtsbaugh around the region, highlighting the decline of water in the West.

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Visitors to the Lee Creek Area walk along a raised path on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake on Friday, July 28, 2017. The 305 acres area is managed by the Great Salt Lake chapter of the National Audubon Society. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

Over time, 85 percent of Western wetlands were drained for cities and farms, including 95 percent of those in California.

Salt lakes have continued to shrink for the same reasons, confining birds to smaller and smaller areas. Audubon reports that migratory shorebird populations in the West have declined by almost 70 percent since 1973.

The Great Salt Lake is the largest lake in the West and one of the most significant sources of habitat for migrating birds in the Western Hemisphere. That’s why experts say it’s important to learn from other disappearing salty lakes in the world and act now to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen in Utah.

“The Great Salt Lake, it’s humongous. It’s the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere,” said Karyn Stockdale director of Audubon’s Western Water Initiative. “Even a massive lake like that is still under threat from these trends if folks don’t take it seriously and do something different. That’s our call to action, let’s not be complacent about this. These are incredibly disturbing trends.”

* NOTE: Wurtsbaugh's paper notes that the Great Salt Lake actually hit a record low in November 2016, when averaging the elevations of the lake's north and south arms.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.