Is Great Salt Lake Drying Up in 2024? Discover the Facts and Experts’ Predictions

Great Salt Lake
© iStock.com/Zhi Gong

Written by Eliana Riley

Updated: July 22, 2023

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A long-term drought and climate change have plagued the American West for quite some time. States throughout the region are scrambling to save their water supply. From Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border to Great Salt Lake in Utah, bodies of water in the West are drying up rapidly. Decreased water levels throughout the region can leave extremely negative effects on the surrounding environment and humans alike. While identifying the source of water loss is a step in the right direction, conserving and replenishing these lakes is another feat.

Discover whether Great Salt Lake will dry up in 2024 and why the lake is losing water so rapidly.

Infographic about Great Salt Lake.
The water levels of the Great Salt Lake, which has a surface area of 950 square miles, have been decreasing.

Background

Great Salt Lake is in the state of Utah. The lake is the largest inland body of saltwater in the Western Hemisphere, with an area of 950 square miles. The depth of the Great Salt Lake ranges between 15 and 35 feet. The area around Great Salt Lake is arid. The lake’s salinity is greater than the salinity of the Earth’s oceans because the lake has no outlet. Furthermore, the evaporation rate in this area is greater than the rate at which water from surrounding rivers flows into the lake. The main tributaries of Great Salt Lake include the Bear River, Weber River, and Jordan River.

Great Salt Lake was formed from Lake Bonneville, a freshwater lake of tens of thousands of years old. In its prime, Lake Bonneville had an area of 20,000 square miles and a depth of approximately 1,000 feet. Due to a breach in a sandstone wall some 14,500 years ago, a flash flood resulted in Lake Bonneville losing over a third of its depth. This led to a significant decrease in water level. The event was followed by numerous droughts, which practically wiped out Lake Bonneville. In its place formed Great Salt Lake.

Great Salt Lake and Salt Lake City, Utah

The Great Salt Lake is the largest inland body of saltwater in the Western Hemisphere.

©Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock.com

The Europeans’ Discovery

While Native Americans had known of Great Salt Lake for centuries, the first European encounter with the lake is still up for debate. Some believe that French explorer Baron Lahontan was the first to mention the lake in reports in 1703. Others say that the Dominguez-Escalante expedition stumbled upon Great Salt Lake in 1776. However, the most likely discovery by Europeans of Great Salt Lake occurred in 1824 and 1825 when Étienne Provost and Jim Bridger visited the lake on separate occasions.

Despite several reports of Great Salt Lake before the mid-1800s, people throughout the United States first became aware of the geographical feature around 1847. When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, began to settle in Utah, the lake became a prominent figure. In 1869, portions of the transcontinental railroad were constructed near Great Salt Lake. Eventually, the U.S. Geological Survey provided in-depth information on the Great Salt Lake in 1890.

Wildlife

Due to its high salinity, few animals can survive in Great Salt Lake. As a result, only microscopic lifeforms and other small animals inhabit the lake’s waters. For instance, brine shrimp is a small crustacean living in Great Salt Lake. The diet of brine shrimp consists of green algae. Predators of brine shrimp include water boatmen, which are small insects, and various types of birds, crustaceans, and fish.

Animals near the surrounding habitats at Great Salt Lake include a diverse assortment of waterfowl. These species include herons, cormorants, gulls, pelicans, and more. Antelope Island is a peninsula-like geographical feature that sticks out into Great Salt Lake. The island has been a primary location for herds of bison to inhabit. Antelope Island also includes Antelope Island State Park, which features other mammals such as mule deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep.

great Salt Lake

Due to its high salinity, few animals such as microscopic lifeforms can survive in Great Salt Lake.

©Eric Broder Van Dyke/Shutterstock.com

Is Great Salt Lake Drying Up?

According to a recent study by Brigham Young University, it’s possible that Great Salt Lake could dry up completely in the next five years. Drought has plagued the western United States for decades and has left significant consequences. For instance, Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada has also struggled to maintain water levels. The combined forces of climate change and overuse of its waters mean that Lake Mead will see a considerable decrease in water level within the next year.

Likewise, Great Salt Lake suffers from problems similar to Lake Mead’s. Water consumption is the most likely reason behind Great Salt Lake’s decrease in water levels. During drought conditions, residents in arid areas are forced to extract more water from freshwater sources. Great Salt Lake’s three main tributaries — Bear River, Weber River, and Jordan River — are freshwater sources for residents battling drought conditions. While Great Salt Lake’s water maintains a high salinity and cannot be consumed by humans, pulling water from its freshwater tributaries results in water level decreases on the lake.

As of 2017, water levels at Great Salt Lake decreased by nearly 12 feet when compared to reports dating back to 1847. Furthermore, Great Salt Lake’s original volume had been sliced in half by 2017. While some believe that wet and dry cycles resulting from climate change led to the massive decrease in water in Great Salt Lake, others believe that water usage is the primary factor in water loss.

Water Loss Is Due to Human Consumption

Limnologist Wayne Wurtsbaugh at Utah State University performed an experiment that replicated changes in climate around Great Salt Lake since 1847. Wurtsbaugh’s team determined that the rate of water flowing into Great Salt Lake from its tributaries saw no major changes since the mid-1800s. The team concluded that the source of Great Salt Lake’s water loss was largely due to water consumption by humans dwelling in the surrounding areas. It wasn’t about the water flow rate but the amount of water flowing into the lake.

An estimated 8.7 billion gallons of water are removed from Great Salt Lake’s tributaries annually. While drought conditions and climate change can lead to increased evaporation from the lake, extraction of the waters from its tributaries reduces the rate at which the Great Salt Lake is replenished. Within nine years, the amount of water flowing into the lake decreased by 39%. Therefore, an increased evaporation rate alone would not cause the lake’s massive water level to drop. Water consumption by humans is an integral factor that couples with climate conditions to leave adverse effects on Great Salt Lake.

Great Salt Lake

The source of Great Salt Lake’s water loss is largely due to water consumption by humans dwelling in the surrounding areas.

©Bella Bender/Shutterstock.com

Effects of Decreased Water Levels in Great Salt Lake

A decrease in water levels at Great Salt Lake resulting from human consumption of freshwater tributaries can also negatively affect human health. When portions of the lake dry up, they are exposed and can release salts and sediments into the atmosphere. This action leads to air particle pollution, which decreases air quality and worsens asthma and respiratory illness symptoms. In addition, animals living in and around the lake will experience habitat loss and suffer due to reduced air quality as water levels decrease.

To mitigate the effects of Great Salt Lake’s decreased water levels, officials and conservationists must act. Wurtsbaugh noted that the amount of water flowing into the lake from its tributaries needs to increase by between 24% and 29%. The increase would allow stability in Great Salt Lake and surrounding environments. Therefore, human consumption must decrease in the region.

Conservation of Great Salt Lake is a Priority

Government officials in Utah, such as Governor Spencer Cox, have claimed that the conservation of Great Salt Lake will be prioritized and that the lake will not dry up under their watch. Several legislators in Utah have brainstormed about how to approach the water crisis. Proposed bills outline plans to provide farmers with incentives to extract less water from Great Salt Lake’s tributaries and to create more turf-reduction programs in various areas. According to some officials, it’s possible that nearly $500 million will be spent to save the lake.

However, some ideas on how to replenish Great Salt Lake have been met with skepticism. One offer to build a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean to bring water to the lake seems unreasonable to many experts. The act of building a pipeline might do more harm than good to the surrounding environment. Nevertheless, it’s clear that experts and legislators alike are doing their part in solving the Great Salt Lake problem. One can only hope that replenishing the lake’s waters will amount to more than empty promises from politicians.  


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About the Author

Eliana Riley is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on geography, travel, and landmarks. Eliana is a second-year student at Miami University majoring in English Education and Spanish. A resident of Tennessee and Ohio, Eliana enjoys traveling to national and state parks, hiking, kayaking, and camping.

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