Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere. According to data from the US Geological Survey, the surface water elevation of the Great Salt Lake has fallen to the lowest level since records began in the mid-1800s. The average elevation is now 4,190 feet above sea level. With this drop in water level, the surface area of the lake is little more than half of its historical size. The lower water level has exposed about 700 square miles of previously submerged lakebed.
The lake now contains about a quarter of the volume of water that it did at its high point in 1987. The precipitous drop in water is a result of water usage from the lake coupled with climate change-fueled drought. Increased water demand is due to the rapidly growing population of metropolitan Salt Lake City. Utah’s population is projected to increase by almost 50% by 2060.
The Great Salt Lake goes though seasonal cycles of water loss and replenishment. Rain and snow generally refill its level. However, because of the ongoing megadrought in the West, water evaporation and depletion continue to exceed the amount of water entering the lake. The water levels are expected to further decrease until fall or early winter, when incoming water is expected to equal or exceed evaporation.
The decline of the Great Salt Lake is a serious threat to the economy, ecology, and people of northern Utah. The lake generates snowpack, is a refuge for hundreds of migratory birds and other wildlife and generates millions of dollars in the economy through mineral extraction and tourism.
Photo, posted October 6, 2020, courtesy of Julie Girard via Flickr.