Shallow Waters: Great Salt Lake by Airboat

As Audubon continues work toward its goal of conserving the vitality of the lake, the birds will be our guide

Riding in an airboat, the sun is shining but there is a haze in the air stemming from wildfires raging in California to the west. There is a shimmer on the horizon in what looks at first like the water is sparkling, but we get closer only to realize it is the mirrored reflection of thousands of American Avocets. The magical experience of being surrounded by Black-necked Stilts, American White Pelicans and Wilson’s Phalaropes on Great Salt Lake will leave a lasting impression.

Great Salt Lake is one of those special places—iconic, steeped in history and uniquely tied to its local community. While its ecological values may not always be the first things that come to mind, the importance of this lake and its associated wetlands to birds cannot be stressed enough. 

As the largest in a network of landlocked saltwater lakes found throughout the Intermountain West, Great Salt Lake acts as a beacon for millions of migrating shorebirds and waterbirds crossing an otherwise arid landscape. Some are looking for a pit stop to rest and fuel up with food before continuing on an arduous international journey. Others stay to nest and raise their young, or claim the lake as their winter home, relying on variety of important habitats the lake provides such as wetlands, mudflats, and remote islands, as well as ample food sources. 

In the past 20 years, Great Salt Lake has changed dramatically. This is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, but decreased freshwater inflows coupled with long-term drought, have decreased water levels dramatically. Our visit on the airboat makes this clear, as we bounce over mudflats under shallow water.

John Luft, manager of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, is our guide and expert navigator through these shallow waters. This state agency manages and conserves the avian and aquatic communities of Great Salt Lake through monitoring and research. He says that lack of water and encroachment of Phragmites australis—an aggressive European variant of the common reed—are their two biggest challenges.

There are numerous, complicated factors contributing to decreased water levels at the lake. In order to accommodate growing cities, economic development, and agriculture, more water is being diverted from the three rivers that feed Great Salt Lake, leaving less water for the benefit of the lake itself. And reduced snowpack and increased evaporation is exacerbated by climate change.

There is no question that the challenges are complex, but the goal is arguably simple—the lake needs a reliable supply of water to sustain wildlife and human uses. Audubon is working collaboratively with partners to find creative and science-based solutions that will ensure seasonally appropriate water inflows and protect and restore priority habitat for waterbirds and shorebirds.   

Like so many places where water is a limiting factor, this is a story about the resiliency of nature. But it also drives home the unquestionable need for birds and people to have places of respite and the resources necessary to survive. As Audubon continues work toward its goal of conserving the vitality of Great Salt Lake, these birds will be our guide.