The Great Salt Lake is Shrinking

Okay, this one blows me away.

Apparently the Great Salt Lake in Utah is shrinking, and has been for the past century and a half


This astounds me because when I first moved to Salt Lake City the lake was GROWING. It had surged up due to a lot of rainfall and was lapping at the doors of the new incarnation of the Saltair Pavilion, swallowing up the waterslide park next to it. The lake was crossing Interstate 80, forcing the federal government to raise many miles of the Interstate, building up layers of earth and paving new road atop it. The rising waters were threatening the Salt Lake Airport. The next year, the rise continued, and the floor of Saltair, with it new parquet surface, was submerged. Political cartoonist Pat Bagley showed governor Norm Bangerter as Moses, trying to part the waters, but the enormous Hand of God descended from the clouds above holding a giant sheet of paper reading “Pump”
But apparently that short-term flooding is like the occasional severe winter which doesn’t disprove the existence of global warming. Overall, the trend is apparently towards shrinking. And it’s mainly because people are diverting the freshwater rivers that originally flowed into the Lake for drinking, watering (practically everyone has automatic sprinklers installed. Without constant watering, grass would shrivel up in the semi-desert climate, and the Salt Lake Valley would go back to sawgrass and scrub, like the West Valley), bathing, and industrial use. Some of it runs back to the Lake – it’s all downhill, after all, to the Lake With No Outlet. But more of it evaporates than would if people didn’t divert it.

Not unusual, when water gets diverted to other uses. Here’s an article about the shrinkage of the Aral Sea http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/aral_sea.php for much the same reason, and Lake Mead, created by the Hoover Dam, is also shrinking, more due to drought but also to greater demand for Colorado River water. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=84105

Water is the next crisis we face in our future, IMHO, and it is something we probably should be paying more attention to (I wonder how the Presidential candidates would react if this was a topic…).

Press on.

Yes – I’ve been following the Aral Sea thing for quite a while now. Utah’s diversion isn’t as extreme as the USSR’s was, but it doesn’t have to be to have a long-term impact.

Lake Powell in southern Utah is, like Mead, due to the creation of a dam, and its levels are controllable within limits. But it’s been low the past few years, too:

It’s probably from hypertension.

Salt mining companies have been hauling The Great Salt Lake away since 1920 under the Bureau of Land Managments “supervision” (read - make minimal payments for the right to pillage a unique natural resource).

“1920 - Congress gives 40 sq. miles to The Bonneville Corporation. Combined with the 49 sq. miles acquired from the Utah-Salduro Co., the mining company now has a total 57,500 acres.”

Save the Salt may finally garner enough political support to change the situation. The current mine operator Intrepid makes a token brine pumping effort to preserve the landspeed race course area. It helps some…

Utah lawmakers urge BLM: Restore Bonneville Salt Flats, ASAP

http://www.hotrod.com/news/1602-utah-lawmakers-urge-blm-restore-bonneville-salt-flats-asap/

When I lived out in Utah, one of the more interesting types of sights along I-80 was the large number of abandoned and rusting car chassis along the side of the road.

What apparently happened is that people, wanting to imitate the race car drivers, would drive off the interstate onto the salt flats.

Unfortunately, the salt flats proper start well away from the road. If you drive directly off the interstate what you encounter is a thin layer of salt crust atop a thick layer of ordinary, very soft, dirt. The cars drive onto this and sink until the car chassis is sitting on the dirt plus salt layer. And they’re stuck.

I have the impression that the salt was NOT like this as recently as the 60’s. You may enjoy this Bonneville saga. Motorhome and THREE wreckers stuck in 2007. :smiley:

http://saltflats.com/stuck.htm

Although to kind of nitpick, the Great Salt Lake is shrinking because of natural cycles (PDF) that have affected the lake for as long as anyone can tell. The actual study is merely saying that water usage has made the lake level lower on average. That means that the nadir of the current shrinking cycle may be lower than it would be otherwise, but the cycle is still almost certainly going to eventually turn around into another growth cycle. The lower average lake levels are certainly bad for a variety of reasons, but the lake isn’t going to go the way of the Aral Sea anytime soon.

“Medium Salt Lake” doesn’t scan quite as well.

I’ve always wondered, do Utah residents go boating in Great Salt Lake? I have this vision of a boater backing his trailer into the water, and it starts bubbling like a giant Alka Seltzer as the salt water eats it away.

(It’s hypersaline, isn’t it?)

Yup. My friend has a boat on the GSL. There’s an island out in the lake – probably more than one, unless the shrinkage has changed that – that’s fun to visit.
And they make these modern boats out of stuff that doesn’t dissolve in Salt Water, unlike all those pirate ships and things that melted away in the Seven Seas.

Don’t you dare accuse it of having shrinkage – it’s HUGE! MAKE THE SALT LAKE GREAT AGAIN!

yeah, and swimming is pretty popular there as well. You float pretty good. You do have to rinse off in one of the supplied showers afterwards or you’ll end up with white salt crusts all over you. The Great Salt Lake used to be an inland sea and has been shrinking for a long time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Bonneville.

I was being semi-serious. :slight_smile: Being fully serious; Doesn’t the increased salinity have adverse effects on engines, manifolds, and trailers? It seems like a GSL boat would have a shorter lifespan. Plus, if you guys have fiberglass motors out there, you should share this tech with the rest of us. :wink:

Back in the mid 80s the lake had risen so high that it had caused $200 million is damage and the state spent $60 million on a massive project to lower the level by pumping water out onto the salt flats. How times have changed.

It’s not just a little lower, the lake has 37% less volume due to the water diverted for water usage. The effect of the current drought is much less significant. While the lake will not disappear in a generation or two, the long term trend needs to be watched.

As long as you rinse off your trailer and flush the motor you’ll be OK.

At the risk of sounding like some sort of shrinkage-truther, I’m still a little skeptical. As I understand the actual scientific paper linked in the article (PDF), basically what they’ve done is estimated the historical flow of the two main inlet rivers above diversions, subtracted the estimated amount of water diverted, and inferred a “normal” lake level from that. The problem I have is that the lake level has varied enormously since records have been kept, and while with the recorded lake level there is a bit of a downward trend if you squint a bit, I’m not sure it’s out of line with the normal variation. In 2014 there was a study that inferred the historic lake level back to the 1300’s via tree rings and looking at that chart I really don’t see the steady downward trend we should see starting in the late 1800’s.

The whole premise seems eminently plausible, and I’m sure water diversions have some effect, I’m just not wholly convinced they’re the main driver here. The region’s climate has been also, broadly speaking, drier and warmer over the past century. It seems like that alone could explain it; if you look on the pre-historic chart you see even more severe dry periods that obviously had to be solely due to climate.

(I swear I’m not a shill for the big Utah onion interests!)

I don’t put you in the same camp as climate change deniers, because as the authors of that study also points out that this effect needs to be studied more where the effects of climate change are better documented.

However, it doesn’t seem that your position is based on anything but a simply wild ass guess with little to back it. If you have any evidence of alternative explanations then it would be more compelling.

If you read the footnotes to the study you cited, it does provide some actual numbers.

I believe you are misunderstanding the relationship with the historic lake levels because that cannot be taken as the evidence you are claiming. All the points prior the 1847 arrival of the Mormon settlers is made from the same science which is used to calculate the current expected levels. It cannot be used to discredit this theory. As you noted, they calculated the river inflow by tree rings and then estimated the lake size. This would be based on the model created from hard date that they had from 1847, so a good 160 years (assuming that the lake was measured each year, if not then a little less data) of measurements which is not insignificant.

My alternate explanation is simply that the trends seen in the historic record do not seem to be a major departure from the trends seen in the prehistoric record. That chart I linked is my evidence for that. (And FWIW, here’s the actual study that recreated the prehistoric lake levels from tree rings, but it’s in a paywalled journal.)

The two studies (the 2016 one linked in the OP’s article and the 2014 tree ring study) use some similar science in the sense of both inferring prehistoric water level from tree rings, but they’re two totally different data sets and are being applied in two very different ways. The 2016 study only used tree rings because of the absence of stream gauge data above diversions on the Bear River.

Again, as I understand it (and my quick re-reading of it I think agrees) the 2016 study merely estimated the magnitude of the water diversions over the past 150 years and added them back to the total lake volume to come up with the “normal” lake level, and from there the 39% number. The problem I have with that is that looking at the prehistoric lake level data, it looks to me like both the actual observed level and their “normal” lake level are perfectly in line with the normal variation seen prehistorically. IOW, there isn’t actually an empirical observation that the lake level is, in fact, getting lower on average. I don’t see anything glaringly wrong with their data or rationale, it just seems like a solution in search of a problem.

Like I said, I’m sure the diversions have to have some effect, I’m just not convinced they’re the primary driver, as was the case in the Aral Sea. Or it could be that they have a major effect on how low the lake gets during the low lake level periods, but their effect is dwarfed during high lake level periods where both water inflow and evaporation are much higher.

I’m trying to understand your logic here, which seems perplexing. You seem to be saying that because there are fluctuations in the lake level and that the current level is within this historic and estimated prehistoric levels that the current historical record-breaking low levels must not be because of the actual significant decrease in the inflow.

As of December, last year, the northern part of the lake is at the lowest point in the 160 years of record keeping and the southern part (which is separated by a railroad causeway) is within a foot of the record low.

You seem to accept the general science behind the obvious equation that water in minus evaporation produces either a surplus for the year, with a net increase in the volume of the lake or a net decrease.

Yet, because the levels don’t exceed estimated prehistoric records, then you reject the science behind the equation without providing an alternative hypothesis for the recent historic lows. Do you also reject the idea that the tremendous increase in the size of the lake in the 80s when there were unusually high snow falls and the subsequent increase of the inflow? Or do you just kick out the data you don’t like?

The point which you are continuing to ignore is that the scientists are utilizing actual data. They’re not simply squinting at a graph of the lake fluctuations and saying if they’re normal or not, which is what it seems you’re doing, they are also looking at the volume of inflow and the level of lake.

The level of the lake is completely dependent on the inflow and evaporation, both of which are known or can be calculated and because of the decrease in inflow, the lake is getting lower. It is completely meaningless to say that there were prehistorical periods where the lake was lower. The question is how much is the lake decreasing because of the amount of water we are diverting for consumption. The measured or calculated that and have an answer.

If you have an alternative scientific principle which explains the lake level other than inflow and evaporation, then please let us know.

The difference with the Arial Sea is the degree of diversion, with it have a far higher percent of water diverted. What the scientist are saying for the GSL is that we need to watch out for the future, because if we continue to increase the amount of water diverted, the lake will continue to decrease in size.
The two studies (the 2016 one linked in the OP’s article and the 2014 tree ring study) use some similar science in the sense of both inferring prehistoric water level from tree rings, but they’re two totally different data sets and are being applied in two very different ways. The 2016 study only used tree rings because of the absence of stream gauge data above diversions on the Bear River.

Again, as I understand it (and my quick re-reading of it I think agrees) the 2016 study merely estimated the magnitude of the water diversions over the past 150 years and added them back to the total lake volume to come up with the “normal” lake level, and from there the 39% number. The problem I have with that is that looking at the prehistoric lake level data, it looks to me like both the actual observed level and their “normal” lake level are perfectly in line with the normal variation seen prehistorically. IOW, there isn’t actually an empirical observation that the lake level is, in fact, getting lower on average. I don’t see anything glaringly wrong with their data or rationale, it just seems like a solution in search of a problem.

Like I said, I’m sure the diversions have to have some effect, I’m just not convinced they’re the primary driver, as was the case in the Aral Sea. Or it could be that they have a major effect on how low the lake gets during the low lake level periods, but their effect is dwarfed during high lake level periods where both water inflow and evaporation are much higher.
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