Scientists say the Great Salt Lake is disappearing, but could Utah residents save it?

18 December 2017 Published in News & Events

by Emma Penrod, Salt Lake Tribune

Modern civilization has significantly reduced the size of the Great Salt Lake, but the authors of a new study remain optimistic that a cultural shift on the Wasatch Front could still save it.

Since the Mormon pioneers arrived in 1847, Utah’s top landmark has shrunk to half its historic size, according to the study published in October in the journal Nature Geoscience. Most of that decline can be attributed to human water use, the researchers at Utah State University say — but that means humans could reverse the trend, too.

It doesn’t mean that will be easy.

The lake’s size fluctuates naturally, with seasonal and long-term weather patterns, according to Wayne Wurtsbaugh, lead author on the study and a professor emeritus of watershed science at USU. When the Wasatch Front experiences drought, lake levels drop and they rise when there’s flooding, as they did during the early 1980s.

But the lake has been on a 160-year decline, data suggest — a trend that Wurtsbaugh and colleagues attribute almost wholly to humans taking water out of rivers and streams that once fed the Great Salt Lake for use in homes, farms and industries.

“There are big ups and downs,” the USU scientist said, “but the long-term trend is down.”

Yet Wurtsbaugh said the Great Salt Lake hasn’t shrunk beyond the point of no return, as have other saline lakes like Iran’s Lake Urmia and California’s Owens Lake.

“We’re not at a critical point … where they’ve lost kind of everything,” he said. “We’re in much better shape than some of these lakes.”

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Why We Care

  • While photographing at The Great Salt Lake, I learned that it is a vastly different experience than other bodies of water. It is other-worldy, eerie, and beautiful at the same time. It is calming, peaceful, and a very inspirational place to be. Some may call the experience spiritual. Others may call it freeing. I call it magical.

    My favorite quote is by Loren Eisley; “If there is magic in this world, it is contained in water.” I absolutely believe that The Great Salt Lake is a place of magic, and that is what I strive to showcase.

    -- Tylyn Cullison, Alfred Lambourne Prize Participant