The story of Great Salt Lake’s influence is really a story of numbers.
The lake is intrinsically tied to Utah’s booming economy, and even if all the people living on the Wasatch Front never step foot in its waters, parts of it are probably in their daily lives.
The Great Salt Lake is known for being unpredictable, for its highs and lows — and for creating mixed feelings among its human neighbors. But today, the water is near reaching the all-time low elevation record set in 1963. As winter snowpack melts, water is a common topic of discussion but the health of lake itself is not.
“One of the issues is, no one really cares about the Great Salt Lake,” said Beau Uriona, a hydrologist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, while checking the Garden City Summit’s snowpack late in February. “But it really is a good indicator of the surpluses of water we’ve had. So when it continues to fall, we know it’s a great indicator that we haven’t had many good years in a row.”
And one average year of snowpack, Uriona said, is not going to do much for the Great Salt Lake.
“It just continues to drop, and when we get an average year people say ‘Hurray! I’ll keep the greenest lawn I can this year,’” he said. “The question is, how long are you going to wait until you decide this is what you care about?”
By the numbers, here are a few things Utahns should consider as the lake continues its disappearing act.
There are three rivers, along with the West Desert Basin, flow into the terminal Great Salt Lake. Melting winter snowpack is feeding them. It was an average winter as far as snow goes, with most watersheds reaching or falling just short of the past 30 years’ median level. Much of that melting snow won’t make the long journey to the Great Salt Lake, instead being dammed and stored for the summer’s lawns, gardens and fields along the Wasatch.
The brine shrimp industry pays more than $8.1 million per season to its 92 full-time and 281-part time employees. That’s for an industry that only operates each year from October to January.
They work all day and night to harvest the tiny eggs, or cysts, the lake’s brine shrimp produce. The cysts are packaged and sold throughout the world as food for the seafood that ultimately gets shipped back to dinner tables throughout the U.S.
A declining lake means increased salinity. Increased salinity makes brine shrimp less productive and kills the algae brine shrimp eat.
Losing the Great Salt Lake
Last fall, we did a series of stories about the Great Salt Lake and the ecosystems that depend on it. This is the next installment of that project. This time, we’re looking at how the lake affects the human economy and quality of life. Missed the first part? Explore the full project.
The lake still hovers just two feet above its record low. The U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Saltair currently puts the south portion of the lake at 4,194.2 feet. (The lake’s north arm, severed from freshwater sources by a railroad causeway, already fell to a record-low elevation late last year) The historic low, set in 1963, was 1,192.1 feet.
The percentage of snow in the Wasatch Mountains that, on average, comes from the lake effect might not seem very high, but Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric science, writes in his book “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth” that lake effect snow comes early and helps jump-start the ski season. Lake effect snow often comes in the fall, building a base for the tourism traffic that comes around Christmas.
Skiers and snowboarders spent around $1.29 billion in Utah during the 2012-2013 season. Around $1.1 billion of that income came from out-of-state visitors.
If the Great Salt Lake withers away, Utah’s booming ski industry isn’t just threatened by loss of the lake effect snow. There’s also the issue of dust that would come from all that exposed, dried-up lakebed. Apart from becoming an alarming public health concern, lakebed dust settles in the mountains and on the snow. Because it’s darker than snow, it absorbs more heat from the sun. That makes the snow melt faster.
That means a declining lake could cut into the length of Utah’s ski season at both ends.
The Great Salt Lake is dropping, but drought is not the only cause to blame. Another significant number is 11, the number of feet higher Utah scientists figure the Great Salt Lake would be today if not for water diversions in the state — even with prolonged years of low precipitation.
When it comes to pulling cash out of the Great Salt Lake, minerals extraction is king.
Harvesting salts contributes over $1 billion to Utah’s economy. It employs nearly 2,000 people, many in the Ogden area. The lake is the only significant supplier of magnesium in the entire western hemisphere. It’s the only significant source of sulfate of potash, too, an important component of fertilizer for high-value crops like fruit and nuts.
But a dropping lake makes it tough for companies to access the water. They’re spending millions digging canals and installing pumps.
Lose the Great Salt Lake’s minerals industry, and the price of magnesium could skyrocket. That impacts everything from car parts to soda cans to vitamin supplements.
And because royalties from minerals extraction funds the bulk of the Utah Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands programs, it could mean cutbacks to important programs on state lands.
The number of visitors last year to Great Salt Lake’s most popular recreation sites — Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake Marina and Willard Bay state parks.
Tourists have flocked to Great Salt Lake for over a century. At first, it was mostly for bathing resorts like the Great Saltair. These days, it's largely birds luring visitors. The lake lies on an important North American flyway, and it’s a stopover for millions of birds from over 200 species. Beyond the birds, the lake has a die-hard sailing community that docks at the marina, along with plentiful hiking and cycling.
Boaters and birders at the Great Salt Lake spent nearly $52 million a year visiting state parks and wildlife management areas. Waterfowl hunters alone spent almost $62 million in the state.
With a dropping lake, everything from the birds to boat launching sites are threatened. Losing tourism on the Great Salt Lake could domino downward to a total economic hit of $135 million to the state, worse-case scenario.