How Great Salt Lake Water Level Stands After Drought Impacted Utah

The water levels of Utah's Great Salt Lake have jumped up in recent months in the wake of the intense snow and rainfall across the U.S. West, but are still lower than usual due to the region's longstanding drought.

As of March 13, 2023, the lake's water levels stand at 4,189.35 feet above sea level, while on December 25, 2022, the water levels were lower, at 4,188.58 feet. The lake hit its lowest level in recorded history in November 2022, at a mere 4,188.2 feet.

Despite having increased since the end of 2022, the current water levels are still lower than they were across previous years. On March 13, 2022, the lake stood at 4,190.62 feet, while in 2021 and 2020 it was at 4,192.44 and 4,193.75 feet, respectively.

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Stock image of Utah's Great Salt Lake. The lake has shrunk massively in recent years due to the megadrought scorching the U.S. west. iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Great Salt Lake, outside Salt Lake City in Utah, is the largest saltwater lake across North, Central and South America, and the eighth largest salt lake in the world.

Utah has been in the grip of the megadrought plaguing the western U.S. The U.S. Drought Monitor showed that in September last year, a large proportion of the Great Salt Lake's banks was in "extreme drought" conditions.

"The recent decline has been precipitous, with a loss of 9.2 feet in the last 10 years," Wayne Wurtsbaugh, professor emeritus of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, previously told Newsweek. "That decline exposed 500 square miles of lakebed and severely desiccated the lake's two important estuaries that harbor hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. The increased lake bed exposure has also increased toxic dust storms that reach Salt Lake City and the rest of the Wasatch Front communities."

great salt lake June 1985
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NASA Earth Observatory images of the Great Salt Lake showing how the lake has receded due to drought.

"We estimate that consumptive use of water for agriculture, urban and other applications has decreased the lake level 11 feet, and the recent drought has decreased it another 6 feet," Wurtsbaugh said. "The drought may be the start of the predicted decrease in precipitation and runoff due to global climate change. The increasing use of water is the result of the very high population growth."

The extent of the lake's drought has since decreased, with only "moderate drought" and "severe drought" surrounding the lake as of March 7, 2023. This is thought to be in part due to the heavy snow across the region in recent weeks, as the snowpack feeds into the lake. The snowpack in parts of Utah is currently at 176 percent that of the average snowpack for this time of year.

"In a normal year like this where we have a good snowpack, we can expect the lake to rise probably 3 or 3 1/2 feet in the spring and then during the summer, it'll drop by 2 to 2 1/2 feet due to evaporation," Kevin Perry, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, told local KSL News Radio. "So we're likely to get a net increase of about a foot and a half, which sounds great, but unfortunately, we've lost 5 feet on the lake in the last five years."

While the recent snowfall is helping the lake somewhat, it won't be enough to reverse the effects of the drought, with a lot more precipitation needed to replenish the lake's levels.

"Even a high spring runoff from the snowpack may not increase the lake level that much because most of the runoff will go towards filling depleted reservoirs and replenishing the very low soil moisture," Wurtsbaugh said.

This is bad news for Utah, as not only does the Great Salt Lake provide water for 85 percent of the state's agriculture, but as it dries out and its water levels recede, the lakebed is whipped up by the wind into airborne dust, which contains copper and other heavy metals.

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