Great Salt Lake Water Level at Historic Lows as Megadrought Threatens Utah

Water levels at the Great Salt Lake have hit historic lows as an ongoing megadrought threatens Utah.

The largest saltwater lake in America reached its lowest level in recorded history in November 2022, at 4,188.2 feet. Its water level now stands at 4,188.6 feet, which is 17 feet below the level it should be.

This is being caused by an ongoing megadrought that is gripping the southwestern United States. This stretch of drought has been drier than any other recorded in the U.S. in the past 1,200 years. Scientists are putting it mainly down to human-driven climate change. And the recent snow storms that have hit parts of the U.S, including Utah, recently are unlikely to shift the dynamic of the megadrought.

Wayne Wurtsbaugh, professor emeritus of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, told Newsweek: "The recent decline has been precipitous, with a loss of 9.2 feet in the last 10 years. 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."

Satellite images from the NASA Earth Observatory show just how dire the situation is. In a picture from June 1985, the Great Salt Lake can be seen full. In a picture captured in July 2022, the lake appears noticeably smaller.

Great salt lake 1985
Great Salt Lake 2022
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A side-by-side comparison shows the lake looking full in June 1985. In July 2022, it is noticeably smaller.

The Great Salt Lake is vital to Utah's economy, contributing an estimated $1.5 billion, according to NASA. The lake provides about 85 percent of the state's agricultural water.

"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 lake is also used for salt and mineral extraction, which benefits the surrounding communities. It is also integral to the surrounding environment and ecosystem.

Bonnie K. Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute and professor of biology at Westminster College, in Utah, told Newsweek: "The drop in lake elevation is devastating not only because of habitat loss as the water recedes, but also because evaporation makes the lake water too salty for life in the lake. This is one of the most important bodies of water for birds on the Pacific flyway.

"Ten million birds eat [...] tiny animals in the lake—either the brine shrimp or the brine fly. The flies develop in the lake water and their larvae are food for some birds, while the adult flies on the shores feed others. The whole ecosystem depends on these two animals and both the shrimp and flies are struggling with the lake water becoming too salty. They have evolved to live in salt water, but they have limits, and we've now passed the point where the shrimp and flies can thrive."

This is not the only body of water affected by the ongoing megadrought. The Colorado River, which provides water for around 40 million people in the surrounding areas, is also drying up. Its flow has dropped by 20 percent over the last century.

The Great Salt Lake and over reservoirs rely on rainfall and snowpack to sustain water levels.

Severe snow storms have hit much of North America in recent weeks. Weather warnings have been issued in Utah and parts of neighboring state Colorado have already been buried in inches of snow. This could increase the amount of snowpack being fed into the lake. This is good news for the Great Salt Lake. But only for the short term.

"So far this winter, the snowpack is increasing quickly, with most Snowtel Stations over 150 percent of normal," Wurtsbaugh said. "It remains to be seen what the rest of the winter will provide. However, 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."

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