Do you know what the biggest salt lake in the western hemisphere is? It’s the Great Salt Lake, located in northwestern Utah. Unfortunately, the Great Salt Lake is drying up. The lake grows and shrinks in response to wet years and dry years, but it is at its lowest point in history this year. Usually, the Great Salt Lake gains about two feet of water per year; this year, it has only gained about six inches (McKay, 2021, para. 2). One major reason for this is that Utah’s population is growing, which increases the demand for water. Because there are more people and thus a greater demand for resources, more water is rechanneled away from the Great Salt Lake for use in cities. Climate change, causing hotter, dryer weather, is another reason for the lake drying up.
The Great Salt Lake drying up is a big problem for multiple reasons. The lower water levels of the salt lake hurts the $2 billion mineral extraction, brine shrimp, and cyst harvesting industries (McKay, 2021, para. 2). The tourism industry has also been hit hard by the Great Salt Lake (GSL) drying up, especially since the lake is a major tourist destination. Besides industry and tourism, Utah’s wildlife and residential populations are suffering due to the lack of water.
The Great Salt Lake is a unique and important ecosystem. It has an abundance of brine shrimp and brine flies, which are a nutritious food source for birds. The Great Salt Lake is also located along the path of a migratory trail for birds called the Eastern flyway—up to ten million birds gather at the Great Salt Lake each year (The Nature Conservancy, 2021, Part 1 para. 7). These birds use the Great Salt Lake for many different purposes: some birds use it as a breeding ground, others use it as wintering grounds, and still others use it as a break on their migration journey. No matter what the birds use the lake for, it is a means of survival to them, and if it disappears, their chance of surviving migration decreases significantly. While the birds are able to acclimate to different lake levels, it’s only so much. Changing lake levels cause changes in the birds’ feeding and breeding grounds. For example, nests that used to be protected by the water are now vulnerable to predators. Additionally, when the water levels decrease, the salinity of the Great Salt Lake increases. While the organisms living in the GSL are adapted to a certain level of salinity, they are not able to tolerate too much salinity. Some of the species that the birds eat are impacted and/or killed by the higher salinity level, causing increased competition for food among birds. The Great Salt Lake is an essential habitat for migrating birds and its lowered water level is already having consequences.
Brine shrimp are a species of tiny shrimp that live in the Great Salt Lake. Cysts are what their dormant eggs are called. Each year about 9,000 tons of brine shrimp cysts are harvested from the Great Salt Lake (The Nature Conservancy, 2021, Part 2 para. 12). Then, they are shipped to hatcheries all over the world to feed fish and shrimp that we eat. Close to 40% of the world’s stock of brine shrimp eggs come from the Great Salt Lake (The Nature Conservancy, 2021, Part 2 para. 12). The problem is, the rise in the salinity of the GSL threatens the lives of the brine shrimp. If the lake keeps drying up, it will keep getting saltier, which will eventually kill them off. This cannot be allowed to happen, not only for the sake of hatcheries, but for the sake of the ecosystem they support.
Another concern with the Great Salt Lake drying up is the release of the dust particles the lake used to cover. What used to be the lakebed becomes dust particles so tiny that they can get into a person’s nose, lungs, and throat. Once inside, they can cause cancer, heart attacks, asthma, bronchitis, and cardiac arrhythmias. These are serious health problems that can be prevented. At this rate, the Great Salt Lake will eventually need to be refilled in order to prevent the dust particles from getting out of control. This would be an expensive process. Owens Lake in California had to be refilled for the same purpose, and it cost more than two billion dollars (The Nature Conservancy, 2021, Part 2 para. 6). Refilling the Great Salt Lake would cost even more because the GSL is 16 times bigger than Owens Lake (The Nature Conservancy, 2021, Part 2 para. 6). This is a costly solution to a preventable problem.
Fortunately, people are starting to realize the importance of the Great Salt Lake. Different environmental groups are raising awareness of the problem and educating younger generations on the importance of the lake, and Utahns are becoming more conscious of their water usage. We still have a long way to go, but if we all pitch in, we can start reversing the damage done to the Great Salt Lake.
Cover Photo: inhabitat.com