Part of Utah’s Great Salt Lake reaches historic low

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A lone bison walks along the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake on his way to a watering hole on April 30, 2021, at Antelope Island, Utah. The lake’s levels are largely expected to hit a 170-year low this year. It comes as the drought has the U.S. West bracing for a brutal wildfire season. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – A portion of the Great Salt Lake has reached a new historic low level, becoming the latest victim of Utah’s widespread drought.

On Tuesday, the Great Salt Lake tied its historic low elevation of 4191.4, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Once the daily average drops to 4191.3 for consecutive days, and the provisional data is vetted, the Utah Division of Natural Resources says the new low will be official.

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Now, four days later, USGS reports the southern portion of Utah’s saline lake is at a new historic low, with average daily water levels dropping an inch below the previous record set in 1963. This is based on information collected at the SaltAir gauge location.

The southern portion of the Great Salt Lake is at a new historic low, with average daily water levels dropping about an inch below the previous record set in 1963, according to U.S. Geological Survey information collected at the SaltAir gauge location.  

“Based on current trends and historical data, the USGS anticipates water levels may decline an additional foot over the next several months,” says USGS Utah Water Science Center data chief Ryan Rowland. “This information is critical in helping resource managers make informed decisions on Great Salt Lake resources. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

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USGS uses the average daily value of lake levels to get the most representative measurement. A record of Great Salt Lake elevations has been kept since 1847.

“While the Great Salt Lake has been gradually declining for some time, current drought conditions have accelerated its fall to this new historic low,” says Utah Department of Natural Resources executive director Brian Steed. “We must find ways to balance Utah’s growth with maintaining a healthy lake. Ecological, environmental and economical balance can be found by working together as elected leaders, agencies, industry, stakeholders, and citizens working together.”

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Currently, 63% of stream gauges with a least 20 years of record are reporting below-normal flows.

Earlier this month, the Utah Rivers Council released a report saying the Great Salt Lake has dropped to its lowest level in history – below 4190.8 feet – “because of reduced snowpacks from climate change and upstream water diversions.”

Yet, at the time, state wildlife officials called the report “premature.”

“Conditions like wind, inflow, and evaporation can cause the lake’s elevation to fluctuate. Sometimes those swings are extreme,” Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Brian Steed says in a statement. “To account for this, the division evaluates daily averages rather than the instantaneous readings recorded every 15-minutes. Taking this approach provides us with a more accurate reading rather than a single snapshot in time.”

In March, Senator Mitt Romney introduced a co-sponsored bill to help protect the ecosystems of saline lakes like the Great Salt Lake.

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Researchers now fear the dire consequences of a shrinking Great Salt Lake.

“It’s terrifying,” says Jaimi Butler, a Great Salt Lake researcher at Westminster College. “We are going to be reaching the very lowest lake levels that we’ve ever seen in 170 years at the Great Salt Lake.”

Butler continues, estimating the Great Salt Lake will likely lose two more feet of depth by October of this year.

Experts like Butler say they are concerned about the impacts of the Great Salt Lake’s dip in water levels on Utah’s wildlife.

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