November 28, 2022

The Whole World is Watching—It’s Time to Focus on a Target Elevation Range for the Lake So We Can Translate Water Conservation Outcomes Into Water Inflows for Great Salt Lake

“Keep doing what you’re doing.”  My Lyft driver’s response when I told him about FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake is a reflection of who we are and how we are. Whenever I’m invited to share a presentation about the Lake and the work that FRIENDS does on its behalf, I begin by stating the obvious—we live along the shores of something GREAT—Great Salt Lake. And whether we perceive it or not, during its relatively short life-span as a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville, it has affected all of us: from the ancients who lived in the Great Salt Lake wetlands, to the growing populations of today and tomorrow. The Lake effect not only covers the mountains in snow, but it continues to modify, influence, and impress our lives and the lives of millions of migratory birds that rely on it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our Lake, as I’m prone to do. The impressive surge of global media coverage surrounding its decline, the welcome but long-awaited legislative tools (coupled with $.5B in funding) to support water conservation and obtain water shares for the Lake, and the recurrent and heartfelt emotional declarations that are shared by so many are all fundamental to our efforts to achieve positive results for Great Salt Lake. And although I realize translating words into actions can take time, I keep checking my watch to see just how long it’s going to take for us to begin with the essential task at hand of bringing water to the Lake. Yes, we have drought exacerbated by climate change but we can’t let that discourage us from moving forward.

When it comes to Great Salt Lake, size matters.

We know that water fluctuations have always been a part of the Lake’s character. Fluctuations in a shallow terminal lake that have exhibited remarkable highs—least we forget 1986-87 during the super El Nino climate cycle in the Intermountain West.  At that time, the Lake came back with a roar achieving an historic record high elevation of 4,212’asl with a watery footprint of 3,300 sq. mi. This, after a remarkable historic record low of 4,191.3’ in 1963 at 950 sq. mi.  We also know, thanks to Dr. Wayne Wurtsbaugh et al, that since statehood, the Lake has dropped by 11.1’ from upstream diversions. Diversions that have reduced the Lake’s volume by 48%. Contributing factors include agriculture 63% (7’), mineral extraction 13% (1.4’), municipal & industrial 11% (1.3’), impounded wetlands 10% (1.1’), and reservoir evaporation 3% (0.3’).  

We use these fluctuations as reference points in our ongoing discussions about salinity concentrations, navigation, wildlife habitat, industries, and the viability of the food web and productivity of the system. These comprise significant ecological and economic values inherent in Great Salt Lake. Thanks to best available sound science and examples from other saline systems globally, we know that as Lake levels decline, salinity concentrations increase and have a direct effect on these important values. And thanks to Dr. Kevin Perry, University of Utah Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences, and others who are studying the exposed lakebed, we can factor air quality impacts into the mix.

This past summer and into early September, we wilted under relentless record breaking 100-degree temperatures with little or no rain for relief. This was preceded by an extremely disappointing water year that resulted in the Lake dropping below the 1963 historic record low twice to its current low of 4,188.9’. With these conditions, compounded by continued diversions from surface water inflows to the Lake, and from withdrawals by mineral extraction operations from the Lake, salinity concentrations in Gilbert Bay increased to 180 g/L or 18 %. This concentration has been determined by the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program Technical Advisory Group (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) as being life-threatening to brine shrimp and brine fly populations. Populations that not only provide an important food source for millions of migratory birds, but also brine shrimp cysts that are used in aquaculture operations which are an important food source for global populations.

With this as a catalyst, the Great Salt Lake Salinity Advisory Committee recommended that “the State of Utah immediately begin planning, permitting, and construction of temporary modifications to the flow-control berm at the new Union Pacific causeway bridge.” The causeway bridge divides Gunnison Bay (North Arm) and Gilbert Bay (South Arm) of the Lake. The GSL Salinity Advisory Committee was established in 2017 to provide recommendations for long-term adaptive management of salinity of the Lake to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (DFFSL) and the Division of Water Quality. Adjustments to the berm were recently accomplished to reduce the salinity coming from Gunnison Bay to Gilbert Bay.

What we’ve been seeing under these conditions are clear calls for urgency. Vast beds of microbialites located in the marginal zones of the Lake that are immediately vulnerable to water loss are drying up. In turn, algal matts that cover them contribute to the life cycle of brine flies, browse for brine shrimp, and are responsible for 33% of the photosynthesis productivity in the Lake are also drying up. With that, if you consider Eared Grebes and Wilson’s Phalaropes and their particular reliance on these food sources it’s quite staggering. The world’s largest staging concentrations of Wilson’s Phalaropes was responsible for Great Salt Lake’s designation as a Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network Site in 1991—a remarkable designation for a saline system to achieve. For Eared Grebes, bird surveys have recorded as many as 5 million of them coming to the Lake. While here, they double their body weight on brine shrimp and brine flies during their molting process and store the energy they need before they fly south for the winter. The impacts on these food sources are anticipated to be so significant that both species could become candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s time to raise the long pole and track a course of action for the Lake’s future. 

We need to translate water conservation outcomes into water inflows for the Lake. That course of action would focus on a target elevation range with sustained inflows over the course of 10-20+ years along with annual funding support to provide us with a basis to evaluate how our collective water efforts are translating into results. The good news is that in addition to the legislative tools available, and a veritable library of important references provided by the GSL Advisory Council, we have other tools that can help take us there. Thanks to the development of the GSL Elevation Matrix, we can better understand how Lake elevation plays a significant role in the effects on these ecosystem services (you can take a look at the Matrix for yourself on our website: Matrix is an integral part of the design of the 2013 GSL Comprehensive Management Plan to provide guidance for the DFFSL and serves to help inform timely and effective jurisdictional management decisions for the Lake as a Public Trust resource—a Public Trust resource that by law is to be managed in perpetuity for the people of Utah.

In short, the framework of the Matrix is based on a range of Lake elevations between 4,188’- 4,213’. The spectrum of ecosystem values/services associated with each of these elevations was identified by the DFFSL from both sufficient data from literature as well as input from at least three dozen stakeholders representing a variety of interests. Within this range of elevations is a sweet spot of 4,198’- 4,205’ where most of those values or services get the biggest bang for the buck. As elevation changes occur and the Lake gets lower, you can see how these values are impacted. The same happens with rising Lake levels. If we focus on beneficial values associated with navigation, reducing salinity concentrations to support the food web and productivity of the system, and wildlife habitats, 4,198’- 4,201’ looks like a good target range to shoot for. This range would also satisfy Dr. Perry’s recommendation of an additional 10’ to make a difference in covering up dust contributions from the exposed lakebed.

Yes, advocating for a target elevation range that’s a full 10’ higher than where the Lake currently sits is both ambitious and challenging, but how can we not step up for Great Salt Lake’s future? And, if the target range you would advocate for is different from mine, that’s fine, let’s talk about it. But that’s the key—we need to start the conversation; we need to set our goal of what elevation we’re aiming for with the Lake. And if for no other reason, let’s do it for the future generations of people and the millions of migratory birds that will rely on the Lake for sustenance. We need all hands on deck!

"He is walking along Thirteenth East Street on an absolutely perfect morning, a creation morning. Perhaps there was a shower during the night, but it feels as if prehistoric Lake Bonneville has risen silently in the dark, overflowing its old beach terraces one by one, flooding the Stansbury, then the Provo, on which this street is laid, then finally the Bonneville; filling the valley to overflowing, stretching a hundred miles westward into the desert, lapping against the Wasatch, pushing long fjords into the canyons, washing away all the winter smoke, softening the alluvial gravels, rinsing and freshening every leaf of every shrub and tree, greening every blade of grass; and then before daylight has withdrawn again into its salty remnant, leaving behind this universal sparkle and brightness." –From Recapitulation by Wallace Stegner

In saline,