Salt Lake

An unusual sight emerges from the shallow waters of the Great Salt Lake as a “reef” pops into view between Saltair and Antelope Island on July 10, 2021, as extreme drought conditions impact the lake. Two Utah congressman are working to conserve saline waters, including the lake, throughout the West before they become environmental and public health disasters.

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The Great Salt Lake hit a record low this year, but it’s not the only salty lake that’s drying up.

Utah Rep. Blake Moore, a Republican, teamed up with California’s Rep. Jared Huffman to introduce the “Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act” last week. The bipartisan legislation directs the U.S. Geological Survey to “to assess, monitor and benefit the hydrology” of terminal water systems in the region, along with the habitat they provide for waterfowl and other wildlife. It would authorize $25 million over five years for the program, during a critical period where climate change is accelerating their decline.

The Great Salt Lake is an ecological and economic engine, Moore noted in a news release. It generates $1.3 billion each year in Utah through the brine shrimp industry, mineral harvesting and tourism. More than 10 million birds use the lake annually to nest, feed and stage for regional migration.

“But today, its water levels are at their lowest in recorded history, leading to a loss of habitat, decreased water flows, and air quality issues,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, saline lakes in Great Basin states are facing these same challenges.”

Salty lakes have long been withering due to drought and human diversions, and the National Audubon Society has sounded the alarm over their loss for years. In 2017, the bird advocacy group issued a study that found more than half of the arid West’s saline systems have shrunk by 50% to 95% over the past 150 years.

“It’s great news to have that kind of level of attention being paid to saline lakes across the West, including Great Salt Lake,” said Marcelle Shoop, director of Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program in an interview Friday. “Its time has come.”

A trend of decline

While the Great Salt Lake grabbed headlines this summer for dwindling to an all-time low, Moore’s bill would also attempt to rescue saline waters such as Oregon’s Lake Albert, Nevada’s Lahontan Wetlands and California’s Salton Sea and Mono Lake. These ecosystems serve as an interconnected web in the Great Basin, providing unique and vital habitats for migrating birds.

And it’s not just the birds who are in trouble. Terminal lakes like the Great Salt Lake become salty because they have no outlet. Water only leaves the system through evaporation, leaving minerals — and sometimes dangerous contaminants from human activities like mining — behind to become concentrated over time. What’s left behind can become toxic dust when the water disappears.

This article is published through the Utah News Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations in Utah that aim to inform readers across the state. To read the full article, click here.

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