Lifeline of the Great Salt Lake, the Bear River is under upstream development pressure

The sun sets over the Promontory Mountains and the frozen marshes of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015. After 491 miles, the river ends at the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake.

Researchers who have calculated how to save the Great Salt Lake are encouraged by a legislative effort toward accomplishing that goal, but planned regional water programs remain a dire threat to the shrinking inland sea.

"If the water developers in Idaho and Utah get their way and develop while not worrying about conservation, it's going to look pretty bleak for the lake," Wayne Wurtsbaugh, co-author of a 2017 study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, said Friday.

The research team determined that increasing river flows into the lake by 24 to 29 percent would stabilize the body of water, which experts fear is on a path to desiccation like similar saline lakes around the world.

The infusion would help maintain lake levels to protect millions of migratory birds and other wildlife, keep marinas open, prevent dust storms that cause respiratory illnesses, and preserve the lake's $1.3 billion economic impact.

Wurtsbaugh, a Utah State University emeritus professor of watershed sciences, said he was glad to hear about House Concurrent Resolution 10, which calls on the state to plan and carry out programs to preserve the lake.

"Instead of getting into a situation where we dried everything up and tried to recover things later, it's a much better approach to start with conservation," Wurtsbaugh said. "Once we develop all the water supplies, people won't be inclined to give that water back."

And multiple major projects are under discussion in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, members of the Bear River Compact.

"There's so much planned development," he said. 

Waterfowl hunters interested in fate of the shrinking Great Salt Lake

A hunter crosses the frozen marshes at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge during the final weeks of the waterfowl hunting season on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015. After 491 miles, the river ends at the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake.

If Utah develops its share of the Bear River, "we'd still have a pretty sizable lake but there would be more dust, more health problems, we would lose more shallow bays," Wurtsbaugh said. "It's not a completely dead lake at that point."

But once Idaho and Wyoming build out too, "we'll lose the brine shrimp, a large portion of the birds. It would be a dire situation."


Proposals to allocate additional water to preserve shrinking saline lakes meet social, political and economic challenges, including entrenched support for the status quo, the study said.

"The direct benefits of consumptive use are easily quantified" and supported by decades of water law and management practices, the study said, "as well as deeply held values regarding population growth and agricultural history."

Sufficient lead time will be necessary so solutions can be developed and implemented before the Great Salt Lake is desiccated, the report said.

It found that 39 percent of water from contributing rivers is already diverted for agriculture and other uses.

Wurtsbaugh also pointed out that Utahns use far more water per person than people in most arid countries. With conservation and changes in water laws, there would be no need for more water development projects in the basin, he said.


Natural variabilities in lake levels due to drought and flood years, and assumptions about the effects of climate change, sometimes are incorrectly cited as reasons for the lake's decline, according to the research report.

That leads to inaction.

For example, Great Salt Lake managers previously blamed declining lake levels only on natural precipitation cycles, without a direct analysis of the cause.

"However, after water-budget analyses were done it was clear that water diversions were the primary cause of the long-term lake-level decline," the study said.

"We argue that a basic water budget is critical to supporting science-informed discussions on the difficult tradeoffs between consumptive use and maintaining saline lakes at sustainable levels."

It's a "no-brainer" to take action now, said Wurtsbaugh, who has been studying the Great Salt Lake for 30 years.

"There's a lot more awareness, but on the other hand, people have huge demands for more water," he said.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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