This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake – and what that can be done to make a difference before it’s too late. Read all our stories on greatsaltlakenews.org.
SALT LAKE CITY – The Great Salt Lake, already vulnerable to climatic fluctuations over the ages, has been “checked” by human impacts, but some of those making such assessments nonetheless see signs of hope in the new state enthusiasm to save the vital inland sea.
The lake is known as a terminal lake, which means that it has no outlet and is therefore subject to major climatic changes. In the 1980s, the lake rose 13 feet, causing flooding and even prompting the state to build giant pumps to pump the extra water into the western Utah desert. But now, in the midst of a western mega-drought, the lake is plunging to historic lows, made more significant by diversions and consumption upstream.
“It’s normal for a terminal lake to fluctuate, but that’s an easy excuse for what’s going on,” said Bonnie Baxter, professor of biology at Westminster College, who has studied the biological characteristics of the lake and the impacts of growth. demographic. “Now there are really strong differences and indicators that humans are impacting what would be a normal fluctuation.”
However, the urgency of deepening the lake prompted the Utah legislature this year to create a $40 million program to seek ways to preserve and restore the lake. Baxter, who runs the Great Salt Lake Institute in Westminster, said she saw signs of an outpouring of support to save the lake.
“I think people are realizing that it could go away,” Baxter said. One indicator is that more and more people are realizing that the lake has individual significance – the landscape, depicted by amateur artists who now look back wistfully on the nearer shores; hunters prowling around the lake for generations; workers who see their livelihoods potentially evaporate; sailboat owners whose boats are idle, unable to launch because there is not enough water; etc
“I’m not a drama prone person; I’m driven by direct science,” Baxter said. “But I see people moved by fear of the lake along the Wasatch front. I’m motivated by that.
The lake, the eighth largest salt lake in the world, has an estimated economic value of $1.5 billion and is home to around 10 million waterbirds, of around 250 species.
A 2017 study from Utah State University estimated that Utahans divert 3.3 trillion liters of water from the rivers and streams that feed the lake each year.
Baxter and other scholars have traced the natural and human history of the Great Salt Lake, hoping their work will help inform the ongoing conversation about the fate of the lake.
“We’ve had this experience before,” Baxter said, referring to other terminal lakes, like the Aral Sea, which have shrunk to catastrophic degrees. “It starts with water being diverted to feed people, to house people, and then you have a dry spell and the lakes are no longer able to rebound.”
The geological history of the Great Salt Lake shows a much broader view than the disappearance of the freshwater lake Bonneville, which lost a huge volume around 15,000 years ago, its remnant being the current stressed saltwater lake. . Baxter said this was just the most recent prodigious transformation – over the past 800,000 years, “great lake episodes have been the norm”. The water in the Bonneville Basin over geologic time has risen and fallen many times.
In his 2018 study “The Microbiology of the Great Salt Lake: A Historical Perspective,” Baxter describes human impacts on the lake and how the nature of the water body has been altered by upstream consumption, diversions such as as Farmington Bay and Willard Bay, and industry.
Humans have likely been in Utah since the Pleistocene epoch, between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago, the highest point at Lake Bonneville, according to Baxter’s manuscript, which draws in part on the work of many scientists and historians.
Lake Bonneville is said to have given the people of the area an abundant source of freshwater fish. As the lake changed over time, humans would have moved along with changing shorelines, hunting, fishing and foraging.
The indigenous peoples of Fremont buried their dead during their stay around the Great Salt Lake wetlands and along the Bear River between 400 and 1000 AD, as evidenced by anthropological and archaeological studies. The Shoshone and Utes lived on the north side of the lake and the Goshute wandered along the south side of the lake.
In 1824, explorer Jim Bridger floated down the Bear River and into the Great Salt Lake, claiming his modern discovery. But historians have reported that French-Canadian trapper Etienne Provost beat Bridger at Grand Lac Salé by months.
The John C. Fremont Expedition in 1843 mapped and described the topography of the area, including the lake’s islands – one of which bears his name – and reported on its mineral and biological content. In 1849, civil engineer Howard Stansbury’s team conducted a broader study of the lake’s geography, natural history, minerals, and water chemistry. Stansbury is also immortalized by an island named after him.
The arrival in 1847 of pioneers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints heralded what would become of today’s significant population growth and associated human impacts on the lake.
Pioneers noted that the geography of the Salt Lake Valley paralleled that of the Holy Land in the Middle East. According to the church in a 1997 citation, the similarity generated a sense that Salt Lake was a land for a “chosen people, just as the Holy Land was considered the promised land” in biblical times.
Mining, agricultural diversions, and railroad shortcuts would eventually affect the previously pristine lake as the settlement grew. The minerals obtained today are used for road and water softener salt, magnesium chloride for steel production and potassium sulphate for fertilizers.
These industries have diverted and dammed and created evaporation ponds. Other dam projects have created vital habitats for birds, but they have also diverted water that previously would have reached the lake.
The brine shrimp industry began to flourish in the 1970s, but rising salinity in the shrinking lake threatens the business. However, Baxter pointed to cooperation between industry and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to ensure the lake is not overfished.
With the combination of climate change and various human impacts, “Now we have this lake set up to fail,” Baxter said. “But I’m really energized by what’s happened in the Legislative Assembly. It was unanimous, bipartisan. There was a lot of lake love. It was beautiful.”
She urged people to consider the range of reasons why they should care about the lake. “If you don’t care about migrating birds, you might care about the effect of dust on air quality. We all need to do not one thing, but everything we can do to value the water that flows into this lake.