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Kowalewski: As Utah grows, Great Salt Lake is ‘refuge’ worth protecting

By Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski - | Jun 18, 2024

Photo supplied, Weber State University

Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski

June 1983 lake level: 4,204.70 feet

The ’80s were a time of concern about too much water in the Great Salt Lake, which had just experienced its greatest seasonal rise in history. Up 5 feet from September 1982 to June 1983, it reached an all-time high of 4,211.85 feet in 1986.

I know the water level in June 1983 because Terry Tempest Williams begins her book, “Refuge,” with that figure. In fact, she introduces every chapter of the book naming the level of Great Salt Lake, chronicling a time when the lake was rising quickly due to a couple of years of greater-than-average precipitation and cooler-than-average temperatures evaporating less water off the lake.

Today, our concern is about too little water. The average water level in the Great Salt Lake has been on a steady decline for the past few decades — in fact, for pretty much the entirety of my 29 years in Utah.

My friend from graduate school, JoAnn DeFiore, gave me “Refuge” when I arrived in Utah in 1995. The lake level was 4,198.6 feet above sea level, barely inside the range experts consider ecologically healthy: 4,198-4,205 feet. She inscribed on the first page, “I hope your new ‘place’ brings you much happiness.” I read “Refuge,” eager to learn all I could about this place. As a community-engaged sociologist, stewardship of place is king, so “Refuge” was a powerful introduction to my new home.

The cyclic nature of this terminal lake with no outlet to the sea and its relationship to the rain, snow, mountains, sun and a quickly growing population of humans was all new to me. A dance. A balancing act. A new way of thinking about water and my relationship with it. Something to be grateful for. A responsibility to use carefully.

Williams taught me how vulnerable the lake is by describing an experiment she did as a child in the 1970s. The experiment went something like this. Students filled two cups with the same amount of salt water. One cup was left to house the water, exposing a surface area of just a few square inches. The other cup of salt water was dumped onto a large shallow dinner plate where the water covered nearly a square foot. The cup and plate were placed side by side on the classroom windowsill. Over the course of a few days, students observed the salt water on the plate evaporate much faster than the salt water in the cup.

Most lakes are deep like the cup of water in this classroom experiment, but the Great Salt Lake is like the dinner plate. Without precipitation or melting snowpack filling the tributaries to the shallow lake, or cooler temperatures to slow evaporation, the dinner plate becomes encrusted with nothing but salt crystals.

In 2022, the Great Salt Lake experienced its lowest level in history at 4,188 feet. That classroom experiment was playing out in real life. Drought combined with more humans living in communities diverting water from tributaries dramatically reduced the amount of water left for the Great Salt Lake. With the process of drying up dramatically accelerated, both the lake’s and our own vulnerabilities were exposed as intertwined and therefore impossible to ignore. Precipitation over the last two winters and a water donation from the LDS Church has helped the lake level rise from its all-time low. Happiness. However, we are still several feet shy of a healthy level.

Williams talks about the Great Salt Lake today as being “in retreat” and asks, “How do we help her?” The answer: Don’t look away. Focus on action.

I’m proud to say I work at a place that has taken action. Since 2007, Weber State University has reduced water consumption by 28%, even while the campus footprint increased by 730,000 square feet and the student population increased by 4,404 full-time equivalent students. Much of WSU’s successful water conservation comes from actions we can take in our households, like increased xeriscaping, replacing old leaky infrastructure and better monitoring water use.

June 2024, Lake level: 4,194.9 feet

To date, my friend’s hope for my happiness in this place has been realized. However, the drying up of the Great Salt Lake is a true threat, not only to happiness but viability here. It is my hope we collectively make choices and take action to preserve our Great Salt Lake, our ultimate refuge upon which our happiness rests.

Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski is a sociologist and vice provost for high impact educational experiences, faculty excellence, international and graduate programs at Weber State University.


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