Utah’s Wet Winter Gives Some Reprieve to Great Salt Lake

But long-term water conservation solutions and secure water are still needed.
A wilson's phalarope on water.
Wilson's Phalarope. Photo: Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies

Great Salt Lake will benefit from great precipitation this winter. But that doesn’t mean the water challenges facing Great Salt Lake and its wetlands are solved. It would take many more winters in a row like this one, as well as good precipitation in the summers, to recover to an optimal amount of water for the lake. For bird species like Eared Grebe and Wilson’s Phalarope that rely on saline lakes for food and rest in their migratory journey, the long-term drying trend at Great Salt Lake—and other saline lakes in the American West—is very concerning.

All saline lakes around the West (and the world) naturally rise and fall with varying weather conditions and seasons—and that includes Great Salt Lake. Saline lakes are dynamic water bodies. One of my colleagues described saline lakes as “flashy”—they can change quickly in a short period of time because the shallow water can quickly dry up or quickly fill. Despite natural variations, we know there is a water level and high salinity at which the Great Salt Lake ecosystem could collapse, and we know this will affect both public health and the health of Utah’s economy.

As of late April 2023, Great Salt Lake is almost four feet higher than its all-time low in November 2022. The U.S. Geologic Survey created a compelling visual showing the record high in 1986 and (the previous) record low in July 2022.

To be clear, Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem benefits from this record-setting snowfall with new freshwater—including for its wetlands and the immense populations of migratory birds that rely on this lake. This new freshwater provides some reprieve by reducing the otherwise increasing salinity (saltiness) of the lake and covering the mud flats (reducing emissive dust from the exposed, dry lakebed). And that means good news for the economic viability, public health and quality of life for those in the region too.  

However, human activities, particularly diverting too much water, have consequences that continue to shrink Great Salt Lake causing a variety of cascading impacts and this is incredibly difficult to reverse and costly to mitigate. For instance, when the underwater reef-like structures (called microbialites) become exposed to the air because of dramatically low water levels, it kills millions of microbes that form these “living rocks.” The microbial mats on these living rocks are essential to birds and the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem providing a primary food source for brine shrimp and brine fly larvae.

Solving these water challenges underscores the need for long-term solutions and requires collaboration, innovation, and flexibility in how we use, share, and manage water. While the historic water year provides some good environmental news, we are bracing ourselves for unprecedented flooding, quickly thawing snowpack, and significant spring growth that may allow for larger wildfires.  

Great Salt Lake has a massive water deficit, and this is just one exceptional year of precipitation. We still need to do our part—embracing water conservation measures, dedicating water to the lake through voluntary partnerships, and acting in strategic ways to ensure lasting protection for the lake and the people, birds and wildlife who depend on it.