Study evaluates humans’ impact in dropping Great Salt Lake
The spiral jetty stands out on the dry shores of the north arm of the Great Salt Lake.
The Great Salt Lake is flirting with a record low, but a collaborative study has found even with Utah’s 15-year drought, the lake would be 11 feet higher if not for agriculture, industry and municipal water use on the Wasatch Front.
In the white paper, “Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front,” scientists with Utah State University, the Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake Community College and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources detail humans’ influence on the lake’s level over time.
“There’s no doubt about it, Great Salt Lake is shrinking,” said USU professor and lead author Wayne Wurtsbaugh in a press release.
The study looked at the lake’s elevation since pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. Although things like drought and rainfall will cause the terminal lake to rise and fall, the study found there’s been no long-term change to the amount of regional rainfall over the years. That means the lake’s elevation should have remained roughly the same over time.
Instead, water that would have naturally reached Great Salt Lake is evaporating in fields, on lawns and in salt ponds. It’s also lost through industrial activity.
Overall, the study found, water consumption has reduced net river inflows to Great Salt Lake by 39 percent over the past 150 years.
“As a state, we’ve made positive strides in water conservation, but these equate to only a two percent overall reduction of water use,” Wurtsbaugh said.
The researchers are particularly concerned about proposed water development projects on the Bear River. The Division of Water Resources predicts the Bear River dam project would drop the lake by another 8.5 inches. That would expose another 30 square miles of lake bed, creating dust and air quality problems for those downwind and threatening migratory birds and businesses depending on the lake.
The Standard-Examiner has an ongoing project exploring the environmental and economic impacts of a declining Great Salt Lake. Read more about the issue on the interactive series page, “Losing the Great Salt Lake.”