The Bear: Life and Death of a Western River
Chapter IV — Dissolution
by Leia Larsen, Standard Examiner
The Bear is the longest North American river that doesn't end in the sea.
Its mouth is at the Great Salt Lake, America's Dead Sea, the bottom of a terminal basin. But even as it ends, the Bear River supports life and livelihoods.
Its waters diffuse into abundant wetlands that support millions of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. It has carved minerals from mountains over millennia, which have concentrated in the Great Salt Lake and now support multi-million dollar extraction industries. Its nutrients feed algae in the lake, which in turn feed an abundance of brine shrimp.
"Bear River is such a critical life-giving source for people and wildlife — all along its path — and ultimately as the greatest source of water for Great Salt Lake," said Marcelle Shoop, director of the Saline Lakes Program for the National Audubon Society.
The Bear is Great Salt Lake's largest tributary, bringing it 60 percent of its annual inflows.
But mid-October this autumn, the river instead disappeared into a vast mudflat that used to be Bear River Bay.
John Luft, director of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, has worked on the lake for 20 years. He had never seen it like this, in mid-October, so late past the end of irrigation season.
"There’s essentially nothing out there. Usually this time of year, there’s ... millions of birds out there. There basically were none," he said.