Western Drought Poses Perilous Dangers to Great Salt Lake, Lake Mead

Over the Independence Day holiday weekend, the USGS released the latest measurements for water levels in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western hemisphere, and, over the last 150 years, the lake has dwindled down to half its original size. Last October, the USGS said the water levels in Great Salt Lake had reached 4,190.2 feet. July’s readings showed the lake to be at 4,190.1, a historically low level for the lake.

Officials believe that the lake’s levels will continue to drop until seasonal rains in late fall and early winter begin to replenish the lake. By October, seasonal irrigation will also be diminished.

The American West is in the midst of a megadrought. A megadrought is defined as a situation in which an area receives lower than normal amounts of rainfall year after year. Utah has been in what is considered drought conditions for nearly two decades. In addition to the lack of rainfall, farmer and ranchers in Utah utilize diversions from the Bear River Watershed that could help to keep the water levels of the Great Salt Lake higher. Plus, the past three winters have no produced the rainfall expected – and necessary – to replenish what is used during the summer.

For the citizens of Utah, this news is not only damaging to the local ecosystems that depend on the Great Salt Lake, but also the economy of the Beehive State. At least $1.7 billion annually is a direct product of the lake, mostly in mineral production. Locals employed by this industry, approximately 6,500, could lose their jobs if the Great Salt Lake dries up entirely.

However, losing the Great Salt Lake could also effect the health and wellness of individuals who live in the area. One local professor took 150 samples from areas of the dry lakebed around the lake. He found high levels of arsenic in the samples. He predicts, should the lake dry up, that dust containing the arsenic (as well as other heavy metals) could affect the air quality in the area. This could create many respiratory illnesses as well as arsenic poisoning.

One landowner, Joel Ferry, took action several years ago. He’s worked to change the way he irrigates his crops and waters his cattle. Ferry’s efforts were noticed by state authorities, and he was asked to become the Executive Director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. Ferry has made it his mission to teach other landowners to utilize the resources of the Great Salt Lake more efficiently.

Ferry said in a statement after the Independence Holiday weekend measurement, “It’s clear that the lake is in trouble.”

One Utah lawmaker is proposing that the state invest in building a pipeline that would bring water from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake. Utah state Representative Cal Albrecht said, “We run pipelines all over this country full of gas and oil and whatever.” Albrecht inferred that a pipeline might be the solution to the drying up of the Great Salt Lake.

Utah is not the only state with a major body of water that is drying up. Nevada’s Lake Mead reached its lowest levels since the lake was filled in the 1930s. Lake Mead is a reservoir formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam; it is the largest reservoir in the United States when considering volume.

Lake Mead’s troubles garnered national attention when the federal government declared a water shortage in 2021. Between June 2021 and June 2022, Lake Mead lost another 26 feet of water (after the measurements prompted the water shortage declaration). The Bureau of Reclamation says that, like the Great Salt Lake, until seasonal rains come, Lake Mead is expected to lose even more water.

At least two sets of human remains have been found since the waters of Lake Mead receded, as has a WWII-era Higgins boat, and a water intake valve.

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