Will We Choose to Save the Great Salt Lake?
In this three-part series, we'll explore the complex story of a natural wonder whose fate will be decided on our watch.
In 1991, writer Terry Tempest Williams introduced millions of readers to a place unlike any other. In her acclaimed novel, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Williams evokes a Great Salt Lake that is ethereal and overpowering. Her story unfolds in the 1980s when the Lake rose to historic levels, flooding Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge—a mirror to the swell of the author’s grief as her mother succumbed to cancer.
Thirty years later, such a rise in the Lake’s salty waters is almost unimaginable. Today, it is the Great Salt Lake itself that is dying.
Utah’s inland sea, the largest saline lake in the western hemisphere, has always ebbed and flowed in a natural fluctuation vital to its complex ecosystem. Yet what’s happening now is something different. The Lake, at near record low water levels, is on a steady downward trajectory, depleted by increasing diversions to accommodate growing cities upstream. A changing climate and frequent drought years are not helping.
The same year that Refuge was published, the Great Salt Lake earned its designation as a site of "Hemispheric Importance" by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. John Neill, an avian biologist with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), underscores it: “This is the highest rank of importance and one of only seven site designations in the contiguous United States.” For migratory shorebirds, the Great Salt Lake’s value is hard to overstate. It is an outsized, vital link in an increasingly fragile network of habitats—a life-giving, desert oasis that is fading away.
There are red flags for humans as well. Alarming ones. The deterioration of an ecosystem so vast and unique has ripple effects that play out far beyond its namesake city. The declining Lake threatens air quality, mountain snowpack and watershed health, thousands of jobs and industries with global reach.
The Great Salt Lake
As a growing, disparate community mobilizes to offer solutions, a shared message rings clear: the price of neglecting this natural wonder will be too high. In Refuge, Williams writes: “I could not separate the Bird Refuge from my family.” Now, as the Great Salt Lake wavers, we’re reminded that none of us can separate nature’s fate from our own.
Part 1: Nature's Warning
Desiccation Under Our Noses
How did we get here, so far from the flooded marshes in Williams’ memoir? Change has always been the Great Salt Lake’s specialty. The Lake is dynamic (and, as a whole, roughly four times saltier than the ocean) because it has no outlet. Fresh water from the Bear, Weber, Ogden and Jordan Rivers feeds into the Lake, but no water flows out. As water evaporates, salt and minerals are left behind. The Lake is also vast but shallow. Stretching 75 miles long and 35 miles wide, it reaches only 33 feet at its deepest points. A remnant of a prehistoric Lake Bonneville, the Great Salt Lake is spread thinly across the bottom of this ancient basin, and it is constantly “breathing”—reacting to wet and dry years by filling up and expanding and then evaporating and recoiling.
Utah is one of the driest states, so precipitation here is always precious. Yet with all the variable wet and dry years of Utah’s past, one constant has emerged: the state’s population growth, and its increasing demands for water. The fourth fastest growing state in the nation, just since 2000 Utah has added more than 650,000 people. To feed the growing needs of cities and agriculture, more and more water is diverted before it reaches the Great Salt Lake.
In 2017, Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a professor emeritus of watershed science at Utah State University co-published a ground-breaking paper in Nature Geoscience. His data showed that since the arrival of the 19th century pioneers, there has been a persistent reduction in the water supply to the Lake, decreasing its elevation by 11 feet, decreasing its volume by 48 percent and exposing approximately 50 percent of the lakebed. Four years later, the problem has worsened.
“For years, this complex system has been functional and resilient,” says Marcelle Shoop, who is the Director of the Saline Lakes Program for the National Audubon Society. “We’re just now reaching the point where growth, water demands, and climate change could truly threaten that resiliency and lead to irreversible consequences.”
Utah’s growth trend is not likely to slow, and Shoop explains it has been joined by another, even more daunting trend: climate change. Predictions for hotter and drier years ahead will only exacerbate and accelerate the Lake’s decline. Shoop notes the Great Salt Lake’s plight is not unique. She points to a 2017 Audubon study that revealed: "Nearly all saline lakes in the Intermountain West have decreased in size and increased in salinity as a result of the growing demand for water from agriculture, industry, and urban users as well as from climate change."
But even among the saline lakes, the Great Salt Lake stands out. The salty elephant in the room.
A Lake Like No Other
Scientists and conservationists have long known the Great Salt Lake’s value. It is one of only a few places on Earth that can meet the food and shelter needs of millions of birds traveling along the Eastern Spur of the Pacific flyway—a migratory route spanning the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Winging their way from places as far as South America and northern Canada, up to ten million birds are drawn to the Lake each year—many representing the largest gatherings of certain species in the world.
Indeed, in terms of bird stats, the Lake is hard to beat. In one single spring day, more than half a million Wilson’s phalaropes—the world's largest staging concentration—have been counted on the Lake. As many as 4.7 million eared grebes, over half of the North American population come here every fall. And the list goes on: 240,000 red-necked phalaropes, one of North America’s largest breeding colonies of American white pelicans, 250,000 American avocets and Earth’s largest breeding population of California gulls. Those totals don’t capture the many other types of shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds—including ibis, herons, cormorants and terns—that also rely on the Lake each year.
UDWR avian biologist John Neill is quick to point out that behind all of the jaw-dropping numbers are hundreds of fascinating, individual stories. “The Wilson's phalaropes visit Great Salt Lake to feed,” he says. “They consume enough food to double their weight and undergo an energetically taxing feather molt, and then their fat reserves power a non-stop flight to Ecuador or Peru—a distance of over 3,400 miles!”
What’s drawing the birds here? The Lake’s billions of salt-loving brine flies and brine shrimp provide a critical, nutritious food source for many birds on their migratory journey. But it’s not just the Lake waters that are important—it’s the mix of lands and waters along the Lake’s shore which form the mosaic of salt content, habitats and food sources that truly make this a bird paradise. Some birds use the Lake as stop-over, some as a breeding ground, and some as a safe wintering habitat. For each species, though, the Lake translates to one thing: survival.
Birds Running Out of Options
A shrinking Lake, then, naturally means big trouble for birds. The water drop is triggering changes throughout the Lake’s intricate web of life. In a complex series of interactions that researchers are still studying, the Lake’s water levels, salinity levels, nutrient levels, vegetation and inhabitant lifecycles are all interdependent. Each element, and each species of birds, engages with the Lake’s resources in a unique way. Since the Lake has always been naturally dynamic, the birds are used to adapting to different lake levels—but only to a point.
Brian Tavernia, Saline Lakes Ecologist with Audubon, explains: “year-to-year fluctuations and long-term declines in lake level affect the amount, timing, and location of wetland habitats for birds. It’s assumed that birds have flexibility to respond to these changes by moving to track habitat at the lake, but this tactic works only as long as some of their required habitat remains at the lake.”
Biologist Bonnie Baxter and Jaimi Butler, who run Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute in Salt Lake City, are leading research on topics such as the Lake’s halophiles (bacteria) and microbial diversity. The two recently edited a comprehensive book about the biology of the Great Salt Lake. Part of the book outlines what the downward trajectory of water levels means to various species of birds. To summarize, the Lake’s lower water levels can change and eliminate feeding or nesting habitat. Receding waters can also open up land bridges, allowing predators to access bird nests that were previously protected by water. Finally, lower water levels mean higher salinity levels, dictating which creatures can tolerate different areas—and impacting the food chain. Already, the book notes, “recent bird surveys reveal a loss in numbers of critical species in the Great Salt Lake system.”
Take, for example, American white pelicans. One of the Western Hemisphere’s largest nesting colonies of these birds can be found on Gunnison Island, in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake. Avian biologist John Neill explained it this way for Utah Public Radio: “…if it [the Lake’s water] drops too low, the island becomes a peninsula and is accessible by land either by coyotes or people that might cause disturbance. Even just one coyote at the wrong time of year can cause the whole colony to abandon.”
For shorebirds, including those long-distant travelers like curlews, avocets, plovers and phalaropes, the shrinking Lake is also a dire situation. That’s because few—if any—other places can provide the mix of habitat and food they need to survive their migrations. As the Great Salt Lake diminishes, so do their options. “Even before a habitat completely disappears at Great Salt Lake,” says Tavernia, “we can expect to see potential negative effects of individuals crowding into smaller and smaller habitat remnants, such as increased disease transmission or competition for food resources.”
In 2019, a National Audubon Society assessment projected we could lose up to two-thirds of North America's bird species by the year 2100. The fate of the Great Salt Lake—one of Earth’s most vital bird habitats—could play a significant role in the realization of this grim future.
Part 2: People Need the Lake They Don't Love
The Unfavorable Lake Effect
While there is a conservation community that embraces the Great Salt Lake’s worth—and birders have certainly increased in number (the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival is entering its 22nd year)—the rest of the world has been a slow sell. In a desert state, where freshwater is like gold, and unique outdoor marvels abound, the salty, pungent Lake has remained decidedly underappreciated.
“Not too long ago, my view of the Great Salt Lake didn't differ much from that of a friend who described it as a ‘giant stinky mudhole,’ says Representative Tim Hawkes, a Republican state legislator from Centerville, Utah. “I had no idea of its value and figured that any water that made it into the main body of the Lake was wasted because the water was so salty as to be good for nothing.”
I know now that it's a vital and precious resource that we can't afford to lose.
Hawkes, who is now General Counsel to Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative and is leading efforts in the Utah State Legislature to enact policy changes to protect the Lake, knows his dismal first impression is not uncommon. But Hawkes had an awakening, and he’s on a mission to share it with his fellow legislators.
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much the Lake is connected to our lives not just here locally, but regionally, nationally, and even internationally,” Hawkes says. “I know now that it's a vital and precious resource that we can't afford to lose.”
Just how precious? We know the birds need the Lake. But what about people? Let’s break it down.
As a lake shrinks, more lakebed is exposed, and fine particles of dust become airborne. This is a lesson that has already been learned—the hard way. Take one example: Owens Lake, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, which was desiccated by water diversions in the 1920s. Its exposed lakebed became one of the nation’s largest sources of PM10 air pollution. Those are dust particles small enough to get into your nose, throat and lungs, and are linked to cancer, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks as well as asthma and bronchitis. Even if you set aside the devastating health impacts, there’s also the price tag—more than two billion dollars—to try to undo the damage. As Los Angeles has had to re-water Owens Lake, residents paid for it in their water bills. For perspective: The Great Salt Lake is 16 times bigger than Owens Lake.
Dr. Greg Carling, a geology professor from Brigham Young University, explains: “I think there are many reasons to keep water in the Great Salt Lake, but holding down the fine particles in the lakebed – that is reason enough. It should motivate us.” Carling is part of a team researching dust in the West. Their recent study showed that 90 percent of dust along Utah’s Wasatch Front already comes from dried up lakebeds and desert basins.
Carling’s colleague, Dr. McKenzie Skiles, a geography professor with the University of Utah, studies another aspect of Lake-born dust. Hip deep in snowdrifts at her monitoring site in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Skiles measures aerosols in the air and snow. Her findings: dust from the Great Salt Lake’s exposed bed is being deposited on the Wasatch Mountains, and it’s darkening the snow, causing it to melt faster.
“This is a story that’s not told enough,” stresses Skiles. “Human activity is directly linked to dust, and the ripple effect is huge.” Skiles’ research revealed that in just one spring storm, the amount of dust blowing off the Great Salt Lake accelerated mountain snowmelt by five days. For Utah’s water managers, and for anyone financially tied to Utah’s epic powder, the timing and pace of snowmelt are critical. “The implications for our water systems are serious,” says Skiles. “Eighty percent of our water comes from snow. Our current models don’t account for the impact of dust. We are uncovering a whole different aspect to the importance of keeping water in the Great Salt Lake.”
While we’re on the topic of snow and mountains, there’s one more piece to the Lake story—the weather it generates itself. Every winter, when cold winds blow in just the right direction and at the right speed over the warm air rising from the Lake’s salty, unfrozen waters, we see “Lake effect” storms. The upshot: heavy bands of snow dump over the Wasatch Mountains—and some of Utah’s most popular ski resorts.
Dollars, Jobs and Seafood
Are you keeping up? Even if you’re not a Utahn (or a Utah skier), chances are the Great Salt Lake is still a part of your life. One reason why: America’s love of seafood. When the Lake’s water levels drop, salinity increases dramatically, threatening the lifecycle of a particularly unique Lake inhabitant: brine shrimp, Artemia franciscana. Also known as sea monkeys, these algae-eating crustaceans are just 15mm in size, yet they are a huge component of the Lake ecosystem. They are a critical food source for the birds, and they are a global commodity.
Each winter, regulated by the State of Utah, brine shrimpers haul around 9,000 tons of brine shrimp cysts out of the Great Salt Lake. The cysts are dormant eggs, which are sold to hatcheries as far away as southeast Asia to provide a nutrient-rich food source for farm-raised shrimp and fish. This is the same seafood that ends up on your plate. Today, about 90 percent of the farmed shrimp we consume in the United States is imported, and nearly 40 percent of the world’s supply of brine shrimp eggs—the food that grows the shrimp you eat—comes from the Great Salt Lake.
Don Leonard, president of the brine shrimp industry trade association in Utah, spells it out: “a healthy brine shrimp resource secures essential health for larval stage fish and shrimp – which play a necessary role in providing much-needed healthy protein for people in both developing and developed countries around the world.”
Leonard also serves as Chair of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council (GSLAC), established in 2010 to help advise the State of Utah on the health and sustainability of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. GSLAC has played a lead role in documenting the economic threats emerging as the Lake declines. A GSLAC study revised in 2019 found that: “the potential costs of a drying Great Salt Lake could be as much as $1.69 billion to $2.17 billion per year and over 6,500 job losses.”
This eye-popping price tag includes not only brine shrimpers but also Lake recreation and tourism, and industries built on extracting or processing minerals from the Lake. North America’s only magnesium producer operates on the Lake, extracting a mineral that ends up in a vast array of products from aluminum cans and computers to cell phones and cars. The Lake also yields sulfate of potash, which is used to fertilize nut and fruit crops in California and Florida. The Lake’s receding waters have already forced some of the mineral companies to make costly operation changes, such as extending canals and moving pumps to reach the water. “The message is clear and is very understandable,” says Leonard. “After being informed, most people will not accept the loss of a healthy Great Salt Lake until we have done everything in our power to preserve all that it contributes and represents.”
Part 3: Easy Choices, Difficult Changes
Dogged Conservation and Optimism
Human health. Jobs. Global industries. International wildlife significance. For the Great Salt Lake, the key boxes all seem to be checked. Yet those working for the Lake's protection over the years have had to wage an uphill PR battle.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) made its first purchase at the Great Salt Lake in 1984, protecting wetland bird habitat threatened by development. Since then, TNC has worked with a suite of partners to protect more than 12,000 acres of wetlands and uplands around the Lake, including the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve which stretches 11 miles and 4,531 acres along the Lake’s eastern shore, and serves as a crucial buffer against fast-growing development in Davis County. TNC also works with the Utah State University Botanical Center to run Lake-based outreach and education programs, which have reached more than 20,000 Utah students to date. Over the years, TNC has supported new science on Lake health and championed policy changes to enhance Lake protection and management. Ann Neville, TNC Utah’s Northern Mountains Regional Director, oversees current protection work at the Lake. “I think we’ve reached a time to truly celebrate the Lake,” says Neville. “For me, getting the right partners in the room, and seeing the traction we’re gaining is energizing.” In terms of conserving habitat around the Lake, TNC and many other entities have made real progress—sanctuaries around the Lake have also been established by Audubon, the State of Utah, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The Great Salt Lake has always been one of our top priorities,” says Dave Livermore, TNC’s Utah State Director. “For more than 35 years, many of us have been beating this drum, and trying to safeguard the most vulnerable elements of the system—and honestly, just trying to give the Lake a seat at the table.”
Another veteran Lake advocate, Lynn de Freitas, the Executive Director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake (FOGSL), is also cautiously optimistic today. FOGSL is dedicated to growing an appreciation of the Lake through education and advocacy programs, and De Freitas has spoken out about threats to the Lake for years—from pollution to diversion to development. “It’s a never-ending battle, but I feel we’re moving in a positive direction. If we act in a timely way with a collective will, we can avert horrific results for people, for wildlife and for the world. Utah can still offer a success story.”
Why is effectively protecting the Great Salt Lake such a tall order? It’s not just about the Lake’s public image. Part of the challenge, explains Laura Vernon, is the complexity of the Lake ecosystem itself and the way it’s managed by the State of Utah. Vernon is the Great Salt Lake Coordinator with Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Her position is relatively new, and an indicator that state officials are realizing the need for better management across the Lake’s many moving parts. “You have the bed of the Lake, the water flowing to the Lake and the water in the Lake, as well as some of the lands around the Lake all being overseen by different divisions and departments,” Vernon says. “There has not been one entity responsible for looking at the Lake watershed as a whole.”
Vernon, who’s been working on Lake issues for 10 years, is feeling a new optimism. “It’s shocking to me how little attention the Lake has gotten historically, but things have grown leaps and bounds, even over the last year.”
She points to new, ongoing funding for the GSLAC, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council led by Don Leonard, which this past fall released a report highlighting 12 key strategies to keep water in the Lake. The report’s recommendations range from changing Utah water law and creating new incentives for agricultural and municipal water conservation to new tools for the acquisition of water rights that could protect the Lake’s inflows.
“The report concluded that while each of the strategies will improve water management, a combination of key strategies is necessary to improve water delivery to Great Salt Lake,” says Leonard. “I’m pleased with the focus on the report and the attention it’s getting. We are working to build consensus behind the strategies.”
Consensus, Vernon hopes, is what may finally lead to a turning point. “It’s been impressive to see such a range of different stakeholders uniting behind a cause. I remember going on a tour out to Stansbury Island in the middle of the Lake with TNC and other conservation groups as well as folks from the mineral extraction industry. And they were all saying the same thing. It was remarkable.”
Flows, Laws and Progress
Still, even with strange new bedfellows holding hands, reversing water level declines at the Great Salt Lake will be no small endeavor. The strategies outlined by GSLAC are up against a special kind of inertia. “Implementing the strategies would require changes in some policies, practices, laws and regulations,” notes Leonard, “many of which have been in place for a long time and are institutionalized. Such changes require deliberation and mutual understanding. An important next step is securing understanding by and support from agriculture interests.”
Historically, Utah ranks high on state water consumption lists. Residents themselves could choose to make easy choices that would help, from repairing leaky faucets and taking shorter showers, to not overwatering their lawns. A large percentage of Utah’s water use, however, goes to agriculture. Legal issues governing western water users and historic laws are complicated and sensitive with far-reaching impacts. And pressures are mounting from all sides. Just this summer, more than 99 percent of Utah fell into “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions, per the U.S. Drought Monitor. According to the Utah Geological Survey web site “Increasing per capita water use coupled with rapid population growth and projected reductions in both snowpack and streamflow due to changing climate is not sustainable.” Water management is top of mind for Utah leaders. But for many years, the Great Salt Lake has been an afterthought. In fact, the State has never had a formally implemented policy to maintain Great Salt Lake water levels at any particular elevation range.
Despite the challenges, Representative Tim Hawkes, the Republican state legislator from northern Utah, is confident. In 2019, he led the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 10, which called on the State to support additional studies to understand the causes and impacts of the declining Lake levels. “I've never been more optimistic about the future of the Lake. HCR-10 has had remarkable staying power,” he says. “Now it feels like we’ve moved into more of a ‘research and testing’ phase. How do we better direct resources to answer critical scientific questions? How do we engage stakeholders in new and meaningful ways? How do we test drive solutions under existing legal authority on a small scale?”
In the most recent 2021 Legislative session, Hawkes successfully prompted Utah policy-makers to approve funding for two new Great Salt Lake projects: one is a study that will better quantify the contribution of groundwater to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands, while the other is an effort to support local governments that are interested in incorporating smart water planning into their land use planning processes. According to Hawkes: “I think it’s important for people to understand one critical fact: people can make a difference. Losing the Lake is not a foregone conclusion. Best available modeling suggests that, with some sensible and sustained effort, we can keep Lake elevations in a range where the Lake continues to support all its primary beneficial uses.”
Seeing Beyond Today
While Hawkes is convinced that the Lake’s impact on public health and the economy will motivate his fellow legislators, he’s also moved by the plight of the birds. “I remember one moment it hit home for me, the amount of life the Lake supports,” he says. “I took a trip to Promontory Point along the Union Pacific causeway in early autumn. From the moment we could see water south of the causeway to the moment we arrived on Promontory, the edge of the water was black with a thick band of countless birds. It went on for mile after mile. I've never seen so many at one time and in one place.”
It’s the type of epiphany that’s welcomed by Ella Sorensen, manager of the Edward L. and Charles L. Gillmor Audubon Sanctuary, a 3,597-acre preserve on the Lake’s South Shore. A chemist by training, Sorensen has spent decades studying the Great Salt Lake’s birds and writing about the Lake for the Salt Lake Tribune. When I ask her how to explain the Lake’s importance to someone on the street, she sighs. “It’s not effective to say things about Great Salt Lake. What works is to bring people out here.”
As Sorensen flicks mud from her boot tip, her soft, white hair lifts in the afternoon breeze. She’s just spent hours walking her daily route through the sanctuary’s sludgy marsh, which provides vital habitat for migratory shorebirds such as American avocets and snowy plovers. “I bring people out here who’ve lived in Utah their whole lives, but never understood the Lake until they came and saw the birds and the wetlands for themselves. It’s tremendously powerful.”
Perhaps that sheer Lake life force is part of what Terry Tempest Williams wanted us to contemplate when she wrote Refuge, 30 years ago. Her life story was inextricably linked to the Lake and the birds—and so is ours. We share in nature’s bounty, and in its decline.
Thirty years ago, Williams described living in a “virtually uninhabited” area near the Great Salt Lake. Today over 60 percent of Utah's population (more than 2.5 million people) live within 20 miles of the Lake. What will the next 30 years bring? For people? For the Great Salt Lake? For the birds? That answer, according to Williams, hinges on our choices. “The eyes of the future are looking back at us,” she wrote, “and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”