Breakdown: Why the Great Salt Lake has reached a historic low elevation

The Great Salt Lake has hit a new historic low for the second time in less than a year
Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 1:17 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The water levels of the Great Salt Lake have reached a historical low.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources said that the Great Salt Lake dipped down to 4,190.1ft (1,277.1 meters) July 3, 2022.

The Utah DNR and USGS noted that Sunday’s measurement beat the previous historic low elevation recorded in October, when it was measured at 4,190.2 feet. Prior to that, the lowest recorded elevation was 4,191.35 feet in October 1963.

“This is not the type of record we like to break,” Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry said.

Over the past 128 years in Utah, 2022 has been the driest year to date. The drought continues to be a major factor in the lake’s shrinking.

As of June 28, 2022, 100 percent of the state of Utah is under a drought.

Utah Drought Monitor as of June 28, 2022
Utah Drought Monitor as of June 28, 2022(Utah Division of Water Resources)

Officials say the worst is yet to come as the dry summer months will compound the drought and low water levels.

Based on historical data, we can expect lake levels to continue decreasing into the fall or early winter. Levels will likely keep decreasing until incoming water equals or surpasses evaporated water, according to the United States Geological Survey.

More images can be found here

This composite of satellite images shows the receding Great Salt Lake. On the left is the lake...
This composite of satellite images shows the receding Great Salt Lake. On the left is the lake at full capacity in December 1988, while on the right is the lake in September 2021 with 800 square miles of lakebed exposed. Water levels have reached record lows due to pressures from agricultural and municipal diversions, climate change and drought.(Utah State University)

What are the risks?

The Great Salt Lake in the US state of Utah has shrunk by two-thirds since the 1980s because of climate change.

As the Great Salt Lake gets smaller, salinity levels increase. Because of that, more marine life may die, leaving birds without sufficient quantities of food.

Also, as the lake shrinks arsenic is exposed from the lake bed and carried by high winds into the air near Salt Lake City. The American Cancer Society says breathing in high levels can cause a sore throat, irritated lungs, arsenic poisoning, or even death.

“Urgent action is needed to help protect and preserve this critical resource. It’s clear the lake is in trouble. We recognize more action and resources are needed, and we are actively working with the many stakeholders who value the lake,” Ferry said.

The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council estimates the lake contributes roughly $1.5 billion annually to Utah’s economy, much of that driven by strategic mineral extraction from its waters. The lake is a rich repository of lithium, titanium, magnesium and potash — essential elements in the production of everything from medical devices to rechargeable batteries and crop fertilizer. Nearly 7,000 local jobs are directly reliant upon the economic power of the lake, with thousands more reaping the indirect benefits from this economic activity. With diminishing lake levels, the future for these employers looks increasingly grim.

If the Great Salt Lake continues to recede, estimates show a drying lake could cost the state more than $32 billion over the next 20 years as they struggle to deal with the ramifications of the resulting disaster.

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