Story by LEIA LARSEN • Standard-Examiner Staff
Salty lakes in the Western U.S. are shrinking.
That’s a big problem for migrating birds, who depend on these landlocked lakes for food, nesting and refuge. It’s a problem for industries like recreation, aquaculture and mineral harvesting. And its hugely problematic for human health — the dust that blows off these drying beds is a known source of air pollution.
But the loss of these lakes is often ignored by the people living nearby. Since these waterbodies naturally fluctuate with the climate, it’s easy to blame their decline and drought. Study after study, however, has shown this isn’t the case — they’re being sucked dry by people. They signal a problem with over-consumption everywhere, but because these lakes have no outlet it’s easier to see the effects.
Below are interactive maps that show how five saline lakes have changed over the course of two decades.
The Great Salt Lake is the largest lake in the West and the eight-largest salty lake in the world.
Research by Utah State University, the Utah Division of Water Resources and others found diversions on the lake’s tributary rivers have dropped the lake’s elevation by 11 feet and shrunk its area by 50 percent. These changes are especially visible in Bear River and Farmington bays, which are closest to the urban population on the Wasatch Front.
Water managers in Utah are proposing more diversions on the lake’s many tributary, the Bear River, to meet the demands of a growing population.
In 1913, the Los Angeles Water and Power began piping most of the water from Owens Lake’s tributary streams to the city more than 200 miles south. A few decades later, the lake went completely dry apart from an occasional reddish, hyper-saline puddle. The dry lakebed became the worst source of particulate pollution in the United States.
In the 1980s, the residents of Owens Valley successfully sued Los Angeles Water and Power, forcing them to mitigate the blowing dust problems. They’ve since covered parts of the dry lakebed with shallow ponds, gravel and vegetation.
Almost 100 years since water began flowing to Los Angeles, the city’s water customers have spent $2 billion on mitigation in the Owens Valley and will likely spend $75 million each year going forward to keep down the dust.
In 2014, Lake Abert in eastern Oregon went dry. It put a small brine shrimp harvesting company out of business. Recent research found the lake’s decline was largely due to agricultural diversions.
The terminus of the Carson River in Nevada once created a 150,000-acre network of wetlands and marshes. In 1902, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation started the Newlands Project, which diverted the river water to nearby farms and cities. By the early 1990s, the Lahontan Valley wetlands shrank to an all-time low of 2,000 acres.
Just like Owens Lake, the City of Los Angeles purchased water rights for Mono Lake, sending them hundreds of miles south through the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Mono Lake is 40 feet lower today because of those diversions. A group of concerned citizens sued Los Angeles and secured a mandatory minimum elevation for the lake. Two decades later, the lake has yet to reach that required level.