The Great Salt Lake: An Update on Current Levels, Ongoing Challenges, and Our Next Steps

The Great Salt Lake: An Update on Current Levels, Ongoing Challenges, and Our Next Steps

Nestled within the heart of the Wasatch Front lies the Great Salt Lake, a remarkable body of water with tremendous ecological and cultural significance that plays a crucial role in sustaining life for both wildlife and human residents. Not only does the lake provide vital water resources to the communities along the Wasatch Front, but it also serves as a sanctuary for over 12 million migratory birds from 300 diverse species, offering them a haven during their long journeys from Alaska to South America. However, the lake is facing an unprecedented challenge as water levels plunge to historic lows due to drought conditions, overuse, and climate change. Low water levels threaten the very existence of the ecosystems and communities the lake supports.

The region’s water resources rely on the relationship between the meteorological cycle and the lake’s geographic location. Snowpack accumulates in the surrounding mountains and provides water for the Wasatch Front. This snowpack has been branded “The Greatest Snow on Earth” and causes the “lake effect snow” phenomenon that provides a crucial source of precipitation for the valley and our ski resorts.

Image of the Northern end of the Great Salt Lake

Image by Getty Images: Freethedust

Dangers of Drying Lake: Air Quality and Health Risks

The implications of the ongoing decline in Great Salt Lake’s water levels are severe and far-reaching. As the lake recedes, the exposed lakebed becomes vulnerable to wind erosion, leading to harmful dust storms that can have detrimental effects on both human health and fragile ecosystems. The airborne particles carried by these storms contain heavy metals, which pose a serious health risk when inhaled. Over time, these particles can contribute to various respiratory and cardiovascular ailments. It is crucial for the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and local officials to safeguard communities from toxic exposure. This is especially important as there is currently a lack of guidance from the EPA regarding the toxic dust coming from the Great Salt Lake.

Researchers at the University of Utah have discovered toxic materials in dust samples taken from recently uncovered areas of the Great Salt Lake Playa. These dangerous substances include heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and arsenic, as well as harmful pollutants such as sulfate and chloride compounds. Furthermore, a study from NASA published this spring showed that Tooele and the west side of Salt Lake City are at a higher risk of exposure to toxic pollutants from dust events. As the lake levels continue to decline, these events will only increase in intensity, which poses a significant risk to public health and the local environment.

Images by: Bonnie K. Baxter, Ph.D. Director, Great Salt Lake Institute Professor of Biology Westminster University

Economic Impacts

According to a study conducted by BYU, the Great Salt Lake supports 9,000 jobs and generates $2.5 billion in economic activity annually. This is mainly due to the harvesting of brine shrimp, mineral extraction, and the recreation industry. If the lake were to dry up, it could have serious consequences for mining and our local ski industry. This is because the dry lake bed could disrupt the delicate meteorological balance that provides the “greatest snow on earth” while also increasing dust transport onto snowpack reserves, causing the snow to melt faster. Utah’s ski industry, which provides 20,000 jobs and generates $1.8 billion in annual economic activity, could be disastrously affected by a dry lake bed.

Sector Economic output Labor income Total economic value Jobs Industry 1,549 424 1,973 5,400 Recreation 186 63 249 1,800 Ski industry* 110 53 163 1,000 Aquaculture 78 28 106 600 Total 1,923 568 2,491 8,800 *Estimates include 5% of Utah’s ski industry—the approximate amount of Wasatch Front resort snowfall that comes from Great Salt Lake evaporation. Estimates are from 7–10 expressed in 2022 USD. These numbers should be considered as underestimates because they do not include the broader ecosystem services provided by the lake system

Graph source: Abbott, B. W., Baxter, B. K., Busche, K., de Freitas, L., Frei, R., Gomez, T., … Belmont, P. (2023). Great Salt Lake Report. Retrieved from https://pws.byu.edu/GSL%20report%202023.

Fluctuations and Trends: Understanding the Current Water Levels

Presently, the lake’s water levels have risen due to unprecedented snowfall this past winter. Nonetheless, we cannot count on historic snowfall to continue in the coming years.  Recognizing the broader context of water levels is essential, considering the lake’s recent historic low and its potential ramifications for our state’s health.


Towards Sustainable Solutions: Policy Changes and Collaborative Efforts

In recognition of these challenges, state leadership has embarked on initiatives like a water banking program to address water usage issues. HEAL Utah has helped spur collaborative efforts that are shaping policy by increasing dust monitoring efforts, examining environmental justice impacts, and halting further water diversion. The following section highlights a few of HEAL’s recent successes. 

 HEAL Utah has played a crucial role in the restoration of the Great Salt Lake through impactful legislative endeavors. By engaging the community in our lobbying program, we have successfully rallied individuals to support significant legislation, including Senate Bill 92, which led to the creation of a Special License Plate Designation for the Great Salt Lake. Furthermore, our team played a crucial role in advocating for funding to enhance air quality monitoring systems, with a particular focus on monitoring dust particles. Our dedicated team collaborated closely with legislators and researchers, providing them with vital insights into the implications and importance of such measures, and ultimately aiding them in making informed decisions for the benefit of this vital ecosystem.

HEAL Utah has been a driving force in addressing the environmental justice concerns associated with the drying of the Great Salt Lake. Through collaborative efforts and engagement with diverse stakeholders, we are working to ensure that communities disproportionately impacted by Great Salt Lake dust are not left without the tools and knowledge they need to protect themselves and their families. By advocating for equitable solutions and fostering open dialogue, we are committed to safeguarding the rights and well-being of those most affected, embodying the core principles of environmental justice.

HEAL Utah played a pivotal role in preventing US Magnesium from diverting an additional 100,000 gallons of water per minute from the Great Salt Lake. Through grassroots activism and unwavering dedication, our community rallied together and submitted over 800 comments opposing a permit that was initially perceived as a mere formality by US Mag. Although many believed the permit would be swiftly approved, thanks to the collective efforts of community members like you, we successfully halted a project that could have further drained the lake’s limited water resources. This accomplishment was a result of collaborative endeavors with numerous environmental groups and individuals committed to the well-being of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

Sunset over the Great Salt Lake

A Race Against Time: The Urgency of Conservation

The challenges facing the Great Salt Lake are multifaceted, requiring swift action and innovative solutions. While the lake’s water levels experienced a temporary rise due to a good snow year, it’s crucial to recognize the need for long-term strategies that restore the lake. Climate change, population growth, and outdated water management practices demand immediate problem-solving and action from many stakeholders. By collectively embracing a culture of conservation and supporting collaborative efforts, we can ensure that this vital ecosystem and the communities that it supports endure for generations to come.