From the Great Salt Lake to the “puddle”: how the climate crisis and water diversions are harming an icon

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In July, water levels in Utah’s iconic Great Salt Lake fell to an all-time high.


But it was not an isolated incident. A combination of the climate crisis and the human use of water has reduce the lake so completely that The Salt Lake Tribune and AccuWeather announced Monday that they are redrawing their maps to show how much the lake has really changed.

“The need to redefine the boundaries of the Great Salt Lake is a vivid reminder of the profound impact of record water levels on the delicate and complex ecology of the Great Salt Lake and of its tremendous importance to the people and economy of Utah, “AccuWeather chief meteorologist Jonathan Porter told the Salt Lake Tribune. “AccuWeather is committed to accurately representing lake boundaries to highlight the impact of climate change on our changing world.”

Historically, the surface of the Great Salt Lake is 4,200 feet above sea level, which maps once showed and is also the ideal point for the health of the lake and the creatures that inhabit it.

Now the lake is “a puddle of itself,” as the Salt Lake Tribune put it, sitting 4,190.6 feet above sea level, about 10 feet lower than the normal. It also contains only 7.7 million acre-feet of water, which is about half the historical average.

This is a problem, because the lake is an important ecosystem that provides many benefits to animals, humans, and Utah’s economy. The edges of the lake are home to brine shrimp which provide food for migrating birds, Yahoo News explained. When the lake narrows, these shrimp and the animals that eat them are in danger. Indeed, the wetlands surrounding the lake are one of the most important migratory bird habitats in North America, hosting around 250 species, columnist Robert Gehrke wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune.

When the lake dries up, it also threatens human health, as the dry and exposed lake bed is the fuel for dust storms. When water levels drop, marinas also become unusable for boaters, posing a problem for recreation and other industries.

Finally, the lake helps produce lake-effect snowstorms that generate water for the surrounding area, Yahoo News noted.

“From a health point of view, from an economic point of view, from an environmental point of view, the Great Salt Lake is a national treasure and must remain so. It’s not just the Great Salt Lake. It’s the Colorado River Basin, it’s all our lakes and streams and [water] storage capacity in the state, ”Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in a Thursday news conference reported by the Salt Lake Tribune. “This is a problem that affects all stakeholders.

The narrowing of the lake is partly due to water management issues. In fact, as Gehrke observed, one study found that the lake would be 11 feet higher if it hadn’t been for upstream water diversions for agriculture and residential uses. Currently, Utah assigns rights to water on the basis of “beneficial use,” which means rights holders must use it for agricultural or economic purposes. Gehrke argued that the state should also prioritize water for conservation.

“If we make conservation a priority or at least on an equal footing with agriculture, conservation groups and governments can start dedicating water rights to the lake,” he wrote.

The shrinking lake is also an example of the impact of climate change and drought on water supply systems.

“As we change the climate, we have learned over the past decades that we are also going to fundamentally change how much water we get and where we get it, the intensity of storms, rainfall, the severity of droughts. and flooding, the demand for water from crops and our natural vegetation, ”climatologist Peter Gleick told Yahoo News.

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