Utah’s Great Salt Lake shrinks to unsustainable levels amid a decades-long megadrought

The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest body of water in the western hemisphere without an outlet to the sea. Its levels fluctuate naturally, but scientists say the record-low water levels the lake has seen in recent years are worrying. A megadrought means less precipitation, and a growing population is taking more water before the lake can refill. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest body of saltwater in the Western Hemisphere without an outlet to the sea.

    An ongoing megadrought made worse by climate change means less precipitation, and a growing population is taking more water before the lake can refill. Scientists say the resulting record low water levels in recent years are worrying.

    Stephanie Sy explored the lake both on and off the water to learn more.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Reaching the waters of the Great Salt Lake from almost any direction these days is a hike.

    And Brian Footen is carrying a heavy load. Founder of the EarthViews Conservation Society, he's equipped a kayak with cameras and sensors, mobile tools to map the receding shoreline.

  • Brian Footen, Co-Founder, EarthViews Conservation Society:

    This is going to log water quality data every 10 seconds, things like temperature, dissolved oxygen.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Satellite images capture the extent of the lake's shrinkage since 1985, but Footen says there is nothing like bringing the public right to its dwindling surface through his interactive Web site.

  • Brian Footen:

    It doesn't take charts and graphs and big scientific reports to tell the story, right? All you have to do is go out there and look.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And so we did, paddling through shallow waters with an astonishing vacancy of life.

    This northern arm of the lake is already forever changed by human decisions. The red tint is a result of extremely high salinity. It was choked off from the rest of the lake years ago to build a railroad causeway.

  • Brian Footen:

    The Great Salt Lake is drying up. Climate change is responsible. You know, developers are responsible. And it just goes — it goes over top of people's heads, right?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Yes.

  • Brian Footen:

    So, what were doing is using this imagery as a way to kind of go, wow, look at this. This is really happening.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Footen also sends the data he collects to biologist Bonnie Baxter.

  • Bonnie Baxter, Westminster College:

    The water is way out there now.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    We meet her on the southern end of the Great Salt Lake. It is eerily quiet and smells of brine.

    I feel like were in the middle of just a dead zone here.

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It feels like another planet.

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    So, it's like a dead coral reef. It's like a cemetery. And these are the tombstones.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Yes. It feels like that.

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    Yes.

    If we see larvae in the water, or pupal casings, there are sharpies to write on.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Baxter brings researchers from Westminster College to gather specimens weekly.

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    These mounds should be covered with maps of microorganisms that do photosynthesis and bring the suns energy into the lake system.

    But you can see that they're dry and they're not green and they're out of the water. Even the ones in the water are not healthy, because they're too salty. The ones out of the water are too dry.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The mounds are called microbialites.

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    This is the foundation of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. And we're seeing it crash and die right before our eyes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The lake is at its lowest level in history. As a result, it's becoming too salty even for species adapted to high salinity.

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    We're not seeing any fly pupae today. That's terrifying.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Brine flies feed the millions of birds that flock here, as do brine shrimp, which are also harvested. It is just one part of the $1.3 billion economic output of the Great Salt Lake.

    To understand why the lake is drying up, you have to zoom out to the surrounding areas of the lake's namesake, Salt Lake City.

    Erin Mendenhall (D), Mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah: The state of Utah as a whole is the fastest growing state in the nation.

    Yellow is the new green.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Erin Mendenhall is the mayor, a Democrat.

  • Erin Mendenhall:

    Salt Lake City, as the capital, is seeing more growth in terms of units each year than almost anywhere else in the state.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There are more city residents than ever, but they're actually using less water.

  • Erin Mendenhall:

    We are absolutely committed to saving this lake with whatever we can. Last year, that was 2.6 billion gallons of water Salt Lakers conserved. This year, it's already up to 2.9 billion gallons.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The city's achieved that not by mandating water restrictions, but by raising water rates about 15 percent a year, and implementing a tiered rate structure.

  • Erin Mendenhall:

    So, the more you consume, those water rates go up even faster. And these water rates reflect the urgency that we feel as Salt Lakers.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But beyond the capital, developments are spring up along the Wasatch Front, single-family homes with lawns full of Kentucky bluegrass that demands daily watering.

  • Jennifer Lair, Salt Lake City Resident:

    It's ephedra, so something that is a native species.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Salt Lake City, Jennifer and John Lair are part of a grassroots movement to swap bluegrass lawns for native plants that need less water.

  • Jennifer Lair:

    Especially with the kind of exponential growth that the Wasatch Front has seen and expects to see for the next 25, 30 years, there just isn't going to be enough water.

  • John Lair, Salt Lake City Resident:

    It makes us wonder if we need to be thinking about living somewhere else. I mean, it's an idea we toss around. How seriously? It kind of depends on the day. Of course, the question then becomes, where do you go from there? Where is not going to be impacted by climate change?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    While conservation efforts by residents of Salt Lake City will definitely help, it may not be enough. Two-thirds of the water in the Great Salt Lake watershed goes to agriculture, including the water from the Bear River.

    It irrigates the farms and ranches whose yields Utah families have relied on since Mormon pioneers settled the region in the 1800s, fulfilling, they believed, a biblical prophecy to make the desert blossom.

    Joel Ferry, Director, Utah Department of Natural Resources: I don't know what normal looks like anymore. It's been a long time since we have had good winters and good moisture.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Joel Ferry has a unique perspective. A fifth-generation Utah cattle rancher, he's also a former Republican state representative and now the director of the state's Department of Natural Resources.

  • Joel Ferry:

    Water in the state of Utah is a prior appropriation. So whoever used it first has the first right to use it today. And a lot of those rights belong to farmers.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Is it time for that to change?

  • Joel Ferry:

    Well, no, I mean, we have — we have laws and we have structure. So what is time for us to do is to implement more conservation measures.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Bipartisan support for conserving water for the Great Salt Lake led to a dozen laws enacted this year by the Republican-dominated state government. The reforms, among many provisions, do away with use-or-lose water policies.

  • Joel Ferry:

    We passed legislation that me, as a farmer, I can say, you know what, I'm going to take my water, I'm going to put it in the river, and I will receive a beneficial use, which totally changes the mind-set of that use it or lose it.

    I might say, wheat is not worth very much. I don't want it. I'm going to get some compensation if I leave it in the river.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    One of the biggest worries is that the Great Salt Lake will go the way others have gone before it, not just drying up and ceasing to be a source of water, but becoming a source of poison.

    Biologist Bonnie Baxter says more than 40 percent of the lake bed is no longer covered by water and could turn to dust.

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    We are likely to see an increase in dust storms as we expose more shorelines. We're likely to see more dust.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And that is toxic dust…

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    … because there is arsenic and heavy metal in this lake bed.

  • Bonnie Baxter:

    Exactly. Right.

    So, the — breathing these small particles has a huge impact on human health, but then you talk about the heavy metals and what that does to a system over time, and that's a little scary.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Other dried-out Salt Lakes provide a cautionary tale. In the early 20th century, water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains was diverted from Owens Lake to growing Los Angeles. By the 1920s, the lake was dry. And, for decades after, toxic dust plumes sickened area residents.

    It is only one reason why, for hours a day, Brian Footen paddles along the lake's shoreline, documenting its disappearance.

  • Brian Footen:

    I think one of the big stories that's being missed in the talk about the climate and the drought and the agriculture and the development in Salt Lake is that this is a unique ecosystem on the planet. There's nothing else like it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And that, in itself, he says, is a reason for saving it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Stephanie Sy at the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

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