The Great Salt Lake — Losing It’s Greatness?

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From Watts Up With That?

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen — 1 April 2023

[Note:  There is some danger in posting an essay on the 1st of April of any year – danger that it will be taken as an April Fool’s joke.  This, however is no joke, I only wish it was.  Those hoping for a good April Fool’s, see this piece from CCNow, however, they don’t seem to realize that it is a joke.]

The Great Salt Lake, in northern Utah,  is one of the iconic  symbols of the Great Basin and Great Basin Desert regions of the American West.  It is impossible to write about the Great Salt Lake without mentioning that, culturally, the entire region was once called “Mormon Country”, recognizing the influence of the Latter-Day Saint immigrants that settled the Salt Lake Valley, and much the American West, all the way from Chihuahua, Mexico to Alberta, Canada. 

The Wiki summary:

The Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth-largest terminal lake in the world. It lies in the northern part of the U.S. state of Utah and has a substantial impact upon the local climate, particularly through lake-effect snow. It is a remnant of Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric body of water that covered much of western Utah.”

What exactly is a terminal lake?  Basically: “a drainage basin that normally retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies of water, such as rivers or oceans, where drainage converges instead into lakes or swamps, permanent or seasonal, that equilibrate through evaporation.” [ source ]  More simply, it is a lake into which water flows but does not flow out, water only leaves through evaporation.  The Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel is another well-known example.

This kind of lake presents some obviously interesting features when we think of “water budget”.  If more water flows in than evaporates out, the lake will increase in size and depth.  If more water evaporates out than flows in, the lake will shrink.  Further, since only water leaves the lake, all the sediments and dissolved minerals that enter the lake with inflowing water will remain in the lake.

Thus, we get such phenomenon as the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Badwater Basin salt flats located in Death Valley.   The Great Salt Lake is surrounded by salt flats on the West:

Ms. Terry Tempest Williams recently wrote a very moving, emotional, plea in an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled: “I Am Haunted by What I Have Seen at Great Salt Lake”.  The text is accompanied by a series of beautiful photographs by Fazal Sheikh.   Williams states: “I have known Great Salt Lake in flood and now in drought; between her highest level at 4211.8 feet in 1987 and her lowest at 4188.5 feet in 2022.”

This chart of lake surface elevation shows clearing 1) The lake level has been falling since its high in the late 1980’s.  2)  The lake level rises when the inflow is over 2.5 million acre-feet per year (MAF/yr).  3)  The lake is at its lowest since 1980.  4) Periods of excess inflow lasting more than 2 years can substantially raise the lake level.  5)  Since the turn of the century, water level slowly dropped by ten feet, from 4200 to 4190. 

Those ten feet make a lot of difference to a lake that at its deepest had an average depth of 33 feet (~10 m) and has declined to 24 feet (~7.3 m)  in recent years.

Why is the Great Salt Lake’s surface level falling?

Have you ever seen the magnificent and still relevant movie, Chinatown

““Chinatown” is a film noir with a private eye and everything, but it also has a larger picture story. It’s a dramatization of the water wars that took over Los Angeles at one point. The character of Hollis Mulwray is reportedly based on William Mulholland, who was the superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He used that role to wield a ton of power. The road Mulholland Drive is named after him.” [ source ]

Utah has its own version of the California water wars – except the loser in these wars is the Great Salt Lake.  Like many Western States, much of the land is naturally dry.  In such places, agriculture needs a lot of water for irrigation to make up for the lack of natural rainfall during growing seasons.

In this photo of Heber Valley, we can see snow-capped peaks in the background, sprinkler irrigation in the mid-distance and a mixed herd of animals in the foreground.

It’s all about the water budget of the lake:

Much of the 1980s were wet years for the Great Basin, and subsequently for the Great Salt Lake, driving its surface water level to record heights.  Hurrah?  No, “Great Salt Lake just inches from disaster” screamed a headline in the Chicago Tribune in May of 1986.  The water level was so high that:

“In 1982, after one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded, Great Salt Lake was monitored for expected flooding. Starting late May of 1983 the massive snowpack melted fast and the lake rose around 20 feet, nearly doubling its surface area. I-80 was swamped, downtown Salt Lake was swamped, and in other areas of the state, entire mountainsides washed away. Great Salt Lake’s flooding during this period is estimated to have caused around $240 million in damages to roads, railroads, private property, and infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants. “

The solution for the flooding?  Utah’s Expensive Flooding Quick-Fix: The 1987 Bangerter Pumps.  “

“…. in 1987, Utah installed three water pumps –  27 feet long, 17 feet tall, and each weighing 81 tons. They were a practical quick fix and were cheaper than other options that would need up to ten years to take effect. These pumps removed 1.3 million gallons of water per minute, feeding the water out into the West Desert. As for the environmental impact of this process, officials said ‘there’s virtually nothing out there, maybe a few lizards and one or two rabbits.’” source – both quotes above ]

Once the pumps started operating, water levels dropped.  But so did streamflow into the lake, making the pumps unnecessary.  The pumps haven’t been used since 1989, but are still maintained “just in case”.

And the real, present-time water budget?  A January 2023 Technical Report, “Emergency measures needed to rescue Great Salt Lake from ongoing collapse” [ link is a pdf – referenced as Abbott et al. 2023 ] gives the nitty-gritty details, but, in fact, the only truly important points are these:

1) The Great Salt Lake is shrinking.

2)  Drought is not the reason for the shrinkage, though more precipitation would improve matters.  See the streamflow chart above, since 1988 (after the exceptionally wet El Niño flood years), streamflow into the lake has been flat, with some wetter years. The last two or three years have been drier.

3) “After millennia of natural fluctuations, human water use has pushed Great Salt Lake into structural decline. Since 2020, the lake has lost just over one million acre-feet of water each year” [ Abbott et al. ]

4)  Streamflow into the lake plus precipitation,  before diversions, would be approximately 3.7 million acre feet per year (MAF/yr).

5)  But human usage, direct diversions of streamflow and direct extractions, run about 2.3 MAF/yr.  Direct evaporation, the natural outflow for the lake, is estimated to be 2.6 MAF/yr. 

6)  Summarizing:

Actual Inflow = 1.6 MAF/yr (precipitation plus streamflow that reaches the lake).  

Outflow = Evaporation =  2.6 MAF/yr 

                     Human extraction = 0.2 MAF/yr

                     Total Outflow = 2.8 MAF/yr

Lake deficit:  1.2 MAF/yr

There is far more water leaving the Great Salt Lake than enters the lake, thus it is shrinking.  But, if all of the potential water reached the lake, precipitation plus streamflow, (3.7 MAF/yr), the lake would eventually be flooding Salt Lake City again.  The critical number in the above chart is the 2.1 MAF/yr diverted to human use.   The major factor for the human usage is agriculture coupled with population growth.  The two are coupled, more people = more agriculture.  And there has been a six-times increase in population since 1950.

Complicating things are Utah’s complex laws concerning water rights and water shares, which are not the same. 

“Unlike many statesin Utah all water (above or below the ground) is owned by the public. Here’s the tricky part: to use water in Utah, you need permission from the state.

One of the biggest differences between water shares and rights is that water rights are considered “real property.” Water rights require a deed to be filed with your local county recorder’s office. Remember, buying land in Utah doesn’t automatically mean buying water. Someone else may control the water on your land, which can lead to legal battles regarding water use and ownership.

The terms of a water share are dictated by individual companies… A share represents a certain amount of the company’s water right. The state has granted them certain permissions, and as a share owner, you are subject to the same restrictions on the amount of water used, as well as restrictions regarding its usage.” source ]

If that sounds complex, complicated and impenetrable, then you have understood correctly.    At the first “all water (above or below the ground) is owned by the public”, you might think that to recover the Great Salt Lake, the public, by referendum or vote, could simply demand that more water be allowed to enter the lake each year.  But, almost all of the water is controlled by long-standing water rights that are owned by deed as real property (just as you might own your home and its land). And, just as the state may not take your land (some exceptions), it can not just take people’s water rights. 

The Technical Study (Abbott et al.), which is really an advocacy paper on behalf of “saving the great Salt Lake”, calls for setting a minimum of 2.5 MAF/yr of streamflow being allowed to enter the lake – that requires an additional  1.5 MAF/yr more than the current average.   That’s a lot of water.   

What’s the solution?

In the real world, the one in which we live, the solution is to allow more of the water that falls onto the land in the Great Salt Lake watershed to flow naturally into the lake.   Simple!

What has been done is that a foundation, Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, has been established by state law and seed money amounting to $40 million provided.  The foundation operates in partnership with the National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy.  The pubic can donate money and ….wait for it….water shares!

“On March 15, the Utah Department of Natural Resources announced that the church [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], which holds significant water rights within the Salt Lake watershed, was donating 5,700 water shares, or about 20,000 acre feet of water, permanently to Great Salt Lake. This is a significant gesture that hopefully will inspire other private donations of water rights to be managed by the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, established by the State Legislature in 2022 in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and The National Audubon Society.”

If others follow suit, there will be some slight improvement in the streamflows that add to the lake each year.

This year, however, Utah’s mountains are buried in snow. With twice the average snow water equivalent.

Overlaid on the Utah State Snow Water Equivalent map is a map of the Great Salt Lake watershed (pale tan).  All of the overlapping areas (lighter blue) have snow water equivalents (SWE) far above average – in percentages:  256, 203, 217, 188, 161 and 132.  Basically, twice the amount of water that is usually available will be flowing down the mountains towards the Great Salt Lake. 

This view of SWE tells us how much water that is.  In many parts of the watershed, 30 inches or more.  The last time this happened regularly, year after year in the late 1980s, the Great Salt Lake flooded Salt Lake City.  One good water year does not make a recovery, of course.  And the residents of Utah are hoping for a slow gentle snow melt or rivers will be raging and flooding will take place. 

The extra water from this just-ended winter will mean good short-term news for the lake.

And the future?

We don’t know.  La Niña is giving way to El Niño and El Niño often, but not always, means more rain and snow in the Great Salt Lake watershed.    More rain and snow means more water – for agriculture whose demands will lessen and thus a double helping for the lake. 

Public efforts are increasing to replenish the lake,  including within the true power in Utah, the LDS Church.  Its donation of extremely valuable water shares to the conservation effort will act as signal Church members living in the watershed to follow suit and  donate any of their excess water shares to the lake as well – 66% of the population of Utah identify as LDS

The Salt Lake Metro Area has 400,000 housing units, and each one has a green grass lawn, watered at least twice a week. (see a Google map satellite view)   These lawns are sod laid down atop sand and require frequent watering.  In many Salt Lake Metro neighborhoods, home owners can be fined if they fail to keep their lawn watered  and green – and, conversely, they can be fined if they use too much water.   Despite the scarcity of water in the state, homeowners only pay an average of $40/month for water. This is less than homeowners pay in my water-rich part of New York State.  Thus one solution would be to raise water rates to reduce usage and/or forbid the watering of lawns, road medians,  golf courses (except greens, of course…).   

Reducing the problem to its pragmatic minimum, Utah has to reduce water usage in the Great Salt Lake Watershed through water conservation (particularly in the agricultural sector) and allow more water to flow into the lake.

If things were only that simple….

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Author’s Comment:

I have visited the Great Salt Lake. It is magnificent and somewhat horrifying….a vast body of water too salty for any normal use but supporting  great deal of wildlife nonetheless.  Migrating birds of many types use the lake and its marshlands as a stopover and feeding ground. It even has a sailing club!

I have watched bulldozers push hills of sand flat, over pre-laid utility lines and pipes, preparing for yet another sub-division of half-million dollar homes.   I have watched them lay sod grown in the valleys above Salt Lake City down over the sand and water it into place.  That grass will not draw water up through the sand as it would over soil, but must be top watered throughout the week. 

Water conservation is a topic of discussion in Utah, but not a common practice. 

Whatever Utah does to replenish the lake, if anything, they are liable to be defeated by Nature – either by a deepened drought (think: the a 300-year period of aridity called the Great Drought which may have caused the disappearance of the Anasazi) or by the return of a wet period such as that in 1985-1987 during which the rising lake flooded Salt Lake City. Humans are not in charge of the weather.

Thanks for reading.