Fall 2016: Pinch Points on the System from Record Low Elevations Require Critical Timing and Water to Address Important Ecosystem Services of Great Salt Lake

Current GSL Lake elevation : Gilbert Bay/South Arm 4,192.29’ Gunnison Bay/North Arm 4,189 ’

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me during my recent trip to Utah to discuss the profound environmental challenges facing the Great Salt Lake. It was a pleasure to tour the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, and I appreciated learning about the good work that FRIENDS is doing to protect Utah’s natural environment. As you well know, time is not our friend in the battle against climate change. My visit to Utah was very instructive, and I look forward to continuing to push for Congressional action on climate change when I return to Washington, D.C. Thank you for your tireless work to protect one of America’s special places. Please stay in touch about your important work.” - Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island

Whenever we talk about Great Salt Lake, it’s important to talk about trends and how over periods of time these trends tend to build or lose water in different parts of the system. In 1963, when Great Salt Lake experienced its last record low elevation of 4,191’, it took 20 years for the high water years of the 1980’s to accrue enough water in the system to get to the record high elevation of 4,212’. Since then, even without the compounding impacts from upstream diversions that exacerbate low Lake elevations, the water budget continues to be in the red because of a string of below average snowpack seasons and above average summer temperatures. All contribute to a trend of loss.

Because the railroad causeway bisects the Lake into two arms, it interferes with water flowing from the South Arm into the North Arm. The North Arm relies on springs, precipitation and inflows from the South Arm, which receives inflows from the Bear, Weber, and Jordan Rivers. The inflows from the rivers and the barrier of the causeway create about a 3’ “head” or differential of water between the two arms, which is why salinity in the North Arm where the deep brine layer originates is always higher. This differential affects bi-directional flows through the causeway which then influences salinity levels for brine shrimp (artemia) and their food sources, wildlife and their food sources, and mineral extraction.

Consider the findings of the white paper published in February 2016 by Dr. Wayne Wurtsbaugh, USU et al. Dry Lake City: Water Development and the Great Salt Lake. We now know that water development over the past 150 years has dropped the average Lake level by 11’. With this in mind, it’s sobering to think about the huge hit Great Salt Lake would take from the proposed Bear River Water Development project that would prevent 220,000acre feet/ year of its water from flowing into the system. Oy!

The summer of 2016 was the hottest on record for the past 137 years coupled with another less than stellar snowpack season. At the Great Salt Lake Marina on the south shore, boats that would otherwise be enjoying this lovely autumnal weather under sail are in dry dock and have been since the spring of 2015. The marina and channel leading out into Gilbert Bay (the South Arm) are waiting to be dredged because of low water and silt build up that prevents navigation. Search and Rescue support is holding its breath because of a growing inability to address any incident that may occur on the Lake. And although some mineral extraction industries like Compass Minerals have already taken the initiative to seal ponds to reduce leakage and improve yields, all industries are exercising existing easements to extend intake canals deeper into the open water to facilitate pumping brine into pond complexes just to maintain their existing operations.

Low water and temperatures influence, salinity, food sources and habitats for wildlife, the brine shrimp fishery, and the industry itself. Already limited by access points around the Lake, navigational hazards exist for brine shrimp boats getting product –cysts - on and off the Lake during the harvest that typically runs from October 1 through January 31. The current salinity range in the South Arm is well above the optimal range of 12-14% for artemia. This compromises artemia’s ability to expire salt and reproduce. Two of the last three years of the harvest have been below average. Microbialites – the coral reefs of Great Salt Lake – play a critical role in the food web for brine shrimp and the life cycle of brine flies, both of which are food sources for wildlife. But microbialites are drying out from exposure.

Great Salt Lake hosts over 250 avian species that use the system. When the Lake is low there’s a loss of critical wetland habitat, and less area for nesting birds like ducks, ibis, and gulls. Phragmites flourish under these conditions and can choke out limited nesting areas. This forces these bird populations to concentrate, increasing the incidence of outbreaks of avian cholera or botulism. Forage is affected by the changes from fresher to more saline conditions creating pressures on nutritional sources for the birds.

At midnight on December 31st, the Standard Individual 404 permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) will expire. The permit allows the railroad to make an opening in the berm of a newly constructed 180’ bridge on the existing causeway in order to facilitate bi-directional flows of water and brine between Gunnison Bay – the North Arm of the Lake, and Gilbert Bay – the South Arm as mitigation for closing two culverts in 2012 + 2013. The culverts were difficult to maintain and the railroad was concerned about the structural integrity of the causeway and its ability to handle freight crossing the Lake.

In tandem with the 404 permit, the Utah Division of Water Quality issued a 401 Certification requirement. The certification includes a 5- year monitoring plan to “detect and address any harmful effects to aquatic resources that may occur in order to ensure that the water quality of Great Salt Lake and its beneficial uses are protected.” The contractual agreement between the state and the railroad indicates that all construction and costs that include the initial breaching of the berm to regulate bi-directional flows, and subsequent adjustments to the berm to achieve monitoring goals over the 5 years will be covered by the railroad. After 5- years, all of this will fall into the lap of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, the Agency that has jurisdictional responsibility for managing the Lake.

In 2011 when the railroad initiated its proposal to close the culverts and construct a bridge, Great Salt Lake was already exhibiting a significant downward trend in elevation due to cyclical declines in snowpack and precipitation. However, some degree of bi-directional flows still existed through the culverts. At that time, part of a maintenance agreement with the state was that the railroad was responsible for keeping the culverts open. Now, with the crumbling structures destined to be plugged, mitigation was required.

Union Pacific’s initial bridge design was fairly rudimentary in that it would only serve to maintain bi-directional flows under “worse case” scenarios, a condition which is extremely difficult to determine without the context of the ecosystem as a frame of reference. The design didn’t address the critical relationship that exists between the exchange of salts from the deep brine or water flowing into the North Arm (Gunnison Bay) from the south and how that translates into the ecological dynamics of the system, and important ecosystem services like mineral extraction, the brine shrimp industry, wildlife, and recreation, - all of which depend on those dynamics.

Without accounting for these critical Great Salt Lake values, cooperating state and federal agencies, industry, and other Lake stakeholders found the design untenable. And it soon became quite clear that in order to protect the system and its resources, a more intensive and collaborative working arrangement between the railroad and the state would be required to achieve a structural design that worked.

After painstaking negotiations that included the threat of a lawsuit by the railroad over right of way issues on easements across sovereign lands, everything is finally in place with a target opening date in early December. When this happens, it’s estimated that approximately 1.75 million acre feet – about 1.5’- of water will flow from Gilbert Bay north into Gunnison Bay creating a impressive torrent of water that will cut through the berm fairly quickly. It will take about one month to achieve equilibrium of bringing water to Gunnison Bay and increased salinity to Gilbert Bay. Under the current circumstances, there is no Greek ideal for the best time to breach the berm. However, when it comes to Great Salt Lake timing is everything.

Five million eared grebes are on their way to the Lake to rest and fuel up for the last leg of their migration. When they arrive, they’ll molt all of their feathers and double their body weight by consuming brine shrimp at a rate of 30,000 shrimp/bird/day. Fattened up and ready to go, the birds will leave sometime in December. The migrating population depends on this.

Juvenile brine shrimp that are responsible for contributing to the next generation of over wintering cysts that will populate the Lake next spring are extremely susceptible to salinity changes. A gush of increased salinity into Gilbert Bay could devastate part of the fishery as well as the eared grebe population. After careful analysis by the Great Salt Lake home team, it was agreed that a December target date was the most opportune for the Lake.

Near Antelope Island, I watched a flock of at least 300 American White Pelicans kettling up in the thermals to launch off for a fishing expedition at a local reservoir. I thought about resilience and fragility, community and our stewardship responsibility. And I thought about FRIENDS’ commitment to our Lake. It gave me hope.

In saline, Lynn

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Rhode Island Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse and Lynn de Freitas

TNC Shorelands Preserve

Photo by Bob Barrett 

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Why We Care

  • I grew up in Clinton, Utah, not far from the Great Salt Lake. From a young age the lake became a place of recreation, discovery, and solace. Every visit to its shores provides a unique and inspiring experience.

    Justin Wheatley, Alfred Lambourne Prize Participant

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