The Great Salt Lake, in northern Utah, is the largest saltwater lake in the Western hemisphere. Or, at least, it has been. Due to climate change, the lake's very existence—and the ecosystems that depend on it—is at risk of disappearing.
Standing on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, you can look out across the water and see the sky reflected on its glassy surface. But every year, you have to work a little harder for this view. The Great Salt Lake, a vital ecosystem for migratory birds and a $1.32-billion part of Utah’s economy, is shrinking,
“We’ve seen this long-term trend that shows the lake is losing water year to year,” says Nate Blouin, Senator for Utah State Senate District 13. “It’s at a much lower level than we’ve seen at any point in history.” In December 2022, the lake hit a record low surface elevation: 4,188.5 feet. (Historically, the lake has sat around 4,200 feet on average.) From its recorded high, the lake has lost 73 percent of its water volume and 60 percent of its surface area. Activists are calling for a minimum level of 4,198 feet to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
Most of this decline is human-caused: The Great Salt Lake is receding every year as humans divert water away for agricultural and urban use before it can reach the lake. Farmers and water users (such as industrial operations managers and residents) upstream from the lake own rights to certain water allocations. Currently, the rivers and streams that feed the Great Salt Lake are overallocated, meaning all of the water is accounted for before it ever makes it to the lake. And due to a decades-long “use it or lose it” water policy, water users were encouraged to use every last drop or risk forfeiting their allotment, even if they didn’t need it all to water their crops or lawns. As a result, for years, very little water was left over to refill the lake.
In 2022, this changed: Water users can now let water flow to the lake without risking their share—but many are hesitant to do so after decades of practice. Years of overuse, exacerbated by decreased streamflow and increased evaporation due to climate change, caused a water shortage. And now, “the lake is on the brink of ecosystem collapse, says Molly Blakowski, a PhD student at the Utah State University’s department of watershed sciences. “We’re at a really critical point to take action before things are barreling too far out of our control.”
The Great Salt Lake watershed is a closed basin, meaning everything that flows into the lake—the water that runs into the lake from waterways that terminate there along with any materials carried within this water—stays there. ”It’s a final destination for water,” says Blouin. “Everything that happens around the lake ends up there.” When water evaporates from the lake—which is a natural and important part of the water cycle but is accelerating at an alarming rate due to climate change—solutes (such as salt and other minerals) are left behind. Over time, these materials accumulate in the lake as sediment. (This left-behind salt is what gives the Great Salt Lake its salinity in the first place.)
Over the past few decades, human industrial activities like mining and farming have marred the land in the Great Salt Lake watershed. Pesticides and heavy metals, like lead and arsenic, flowed downstream and, with nowhere else to go, settled into the lakebed. “These contaminants have been flushed into the lake—out of sight, out of mind,” says Blakowski.
As the lake dries up, this sediment—and all the accompanying contaminants—is uncovered and gets kicked up into the air. Between 2019 and 2021, dust emissions from the lakebed increased, according to Blakowski. As the dust fills the air and blows into surrounding areas, communities fear a public health crisis due to air quality concerns.
After decades of human activity, “the contaminants could be blown back into our faces,” says Blakowski. Residents will be exposed to high concentrations of atmospheric particulates that come with a whole host of negative health risks, including increased rates of diseases like reproductive dysfunction, cognitive impairment, cardiovascular damage, and cancer. But it’s not just the air that could be hazardous. In her research, Blakowski found that heavy metals in dust leach into garden vegetables through the soil. Residents could experience effects depending on what’s on their plate.
“A lot of people I know are weighing the question of, How long can I live here?” says Nan Seymour, a Salt Lake City resident and activist. How long until clouds of dust make it hard to breathe? Until the air that residents breathe is toxic? “It’s a big deal. The Wasatch Front [the chain of cities home to two million people that lies along the western edge of the Wasatch Mountains] would become a pretty uninhabitable place if we don’t take serious action,” says Blouin, the state senator. Many residents, like Seymour, can’t imagine a world without the lake: “This is my lifelong home; I don’t have any desire to move other than my desire to breathe.”
Sarah Woodbury grew up in Kaysville, Utah, and could see the lake every day while she was growing up. She would spend summers sailing on the lake with her neighbors or splashing in the water to find brine shrimp. “It has been a central piece in my spiritual healing,” she says. When she visits now, places that were once a few steps from the car are now a half a mile walk. “It’s painful to see the water out that far—it feels like a friend is leaving,” says Woodbury.
Around the lake, mats of microbes, called microbialites, anchor to the ground as reefs, covering around 30 percent of the lake bottom. Brine shrimp and brine flies, the two dominant lake species, feed on these underwater mats. But when the microbialites rest above the water’s surface, the sun bleaches them; some die from exposure. Without the microbialites, brine shrimp and flies are deprived of their primary food source. The impacts reverberate up the food chain, as migratory birds rely on these species.
For the past two winters during the Utah State legislative session, Seymour has led a seven-week vigil on Antelope Island along the lake shore. Over 400 individuals gathered to walk along the shore, write, and grow their relationship with the Great Salt Lake. “People would come out and we would walk a long way along the shoreline to Buffalo Point [a rocky point of land that extends into the bay] so I could show them some of the exposed microbialites,” says Seymour. “This year, I didn’t even have to leave the campground—the whole bay was striated with [mats].”
The Great Salt Lake is also an essential stop for migratory birds. “Birds will arrive looking for food,” says Woodbury, an activist and birdwatcher. “They won’t find any and will essentially die.” This year during Seymour’s vigil, Seymour saw over 500 bodies of dead grebes, an aquatic bird species. Her scientist friends told her this loss may be attributed to avian flu, but she couldn’t shake the sense of foreboding while she was counting those bodies.
“It was a hard thing to be with,” says Seymour. “Imagine this times 10 when [the birds] won’t have sustenance next year.”
Researchers say the choices that the State of Utah makes over the next few months will be imperative for saving the lake—and emergency measures are needed. “I want to see a commitment from the State of Utah to recognize a healthy elevation range for the lake,” says Lynn De Freitas, the executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, a nonprofit that works to preserve the lake through education, research, advocacy, and art. The target level—4,198 feet—would serve as a measure to evaluate the success of conservation policies.
One glimmer of hope is the record-breaking snowfall in the Wasatch Mountains this winter, which puts the snowpack at 201 percent of average. While it is unclear how it will impact the lake just yet, many anticipate it will increase the lake level. But Blouin cautions against seeing this as a miracle fix. “Just because we had a great water year this year, don’t think all our problems are solved,” he says. “It is a gift and we ought to rise to it,” says Seymour.
Activists and residents are holding rallies at the Utah State Capitol and participating in public hearings during legislative sessions in an effort to raise awareness and put pressure on political officials to sign bills that will get more water to the lake. “There’s a lot of energy surrounding the lake right now,” says Blakowski. Seymour feels optimistic because the people who are gathering around the issue “are fierce and devoted and smart—and they care a lot.”
During this year’s session, lawmakers didn’t act on emergency water-saving measures, but they did budget $200 million to help farmers make irrigation systems more efficient.
Citizen involvement is crucial to showing lawmakers that residents care about this issue. If you want to get involved, “you could attend public hearings, participate in comment periods at legislative sessions, write letters to the editor, call [or text] your local representative, or talk to your neighbors about the Great Salt Lake,” says De Freitas. But even if you’re not a Utah resident, you can continue the conversation in your community or on social media with tags like #saveourgreatsaltlake.
And while the window to act is closing, it’s not closed. “We’re not powerless. But we have to use our voice even when we don’t feel accomplished or knowledgable in every way,” says Seymour. “We have to speak on behalf of the lake.”