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Great Salt Lake Levels Rising but Not Healthy Yet

 Audubon > News Read More 

After another above-average winter, many felt relief to see headlines like “Great Salt Lake level reaches seven-year high” populating Utah’s news cycle last week. Others were witnessing the impacts of rising water levels with their own eyes.

“We’re seeing things out on the water that we haven’t seen in years,” Kyle Stone, a biologist with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, explained as he stood on the shore of Farmington Bay, his airboat bobbing against the western shoreline behind him—a shoreline lapping higher up the embankment than it had in recent memory.

Just one week prior, Kyle was spending long, tireless days on his airboat surveying migrating shorebirds as they moved through the lake in their spring migration. While the data is not yet ready to share, he hinted that throughout those days his team witnessed things on the lake—beyond just shorebird counts—that they haven’t seen in years.

A brisk early morning in May, he described his observations to our group before taking us on an educational tour of the waters, regaling us with stories of airboats getting stuck in the same areas we moved through in the years prior. The morning proved to be one of awe, as we took in the stunning landscape of Farmington Bay, reveling at the extent of water in the bay.

Similar stories circulated at the Great Salt Lake Issues Forum, aka the Superbowl of Great Salt Lake, which took place last week. As one Great Salt Lake expert after the next delivered data-packed presentations on every imaginable facet of the lake’s ecology, they also acknowledged that while this new lake level brings some reprieve to those working tirelessly to secure a healthy future for Great Salt Lake, there is still much to be done.

It was only in November 2022 that Great Salt Lake dropped to its lowest water level ever recorded, leaving the ecosystem on the brink of collapse. Such a collapse threatens to devastate the populations of the tens of millions of migratory shorebirds that depend on the lake as a critical stopover in the Pacific Flyway, Utah’s economy that profoundly benefits from the lake, and the health of surrounding communities.

While the past two and half years have seen increased state-wide coordination and profoundly impactful generational advancements and policy changes, we cannot assume this rise in levels means we can take our foot off the gas.

While the lake has reached its highest level in the last seven years, today it is still three feet short of its minimum healthy level: 4,198 feet set by the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Although a second winter of above-average snowpack provided improvements to conditions on the lake and its surrounding wetlands and brought Great Salt Lake water levels closer to that healthy range, the long-term trends remain alarming.

As a terminal lake that depends on inflow and precipitation, long-term drought, increased water diversions and usage from growth, and the reality of climate change, provide less water overall flows into Great Salt Lake. Additionally, as a naturally fluctuating lake, we might see the lake’s level continue to rise this spring as snowpack runoff continues, but ecologists anticipate those levels to drop as the summer sees the end of runoff and an increase in evaporation with increasing temperatures. We also do not know what future winters will hold.

Working closely with the Great Salt Lake Commissioner’s Office, Audubon is working to improve outcomes for Great Salt Lake for birds and the places they need. We’ve supported policy updates that help Utahns thrive within the limits of our water supplies, by reducing water consumption rates, creating flexible water-sharing approaches, and recognizing the role the natural environment plays in the water cycle and Utah’s vitality. As a co-leader of the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust (the Trust), Audubon (along with The Nature Conservancy) is actively working to redefine the limits of how water gets to the lake through new water transactions and creative partnerships, while also protecting and restoring habitats in Great Salt Lake’s wetlands and surrounding ecosystem.

At the end of 2023, the Trust released its 5-Year Strategy, which works in tandem with the Commissioner’s Great Salt Lake Strategic Plan, and in turn, the Great Salt Lake Integrated Basin Plan (Utah Division of Water Resources), the Great Salt Lake Distribution Management Plan (Utah Division of Water Rights), and the anticipated update of the Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan (Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands).

As we work toward helping the lake reach its healthy range and establishing the foundation to keep it there despite natural fluctuations and the potential for more mild winters in the future, it will continue to take such a level of steadfast dedication, partnership, and profound coordination across agencies to maximize the impact of our efforts.

So yes, celebrate this milestone and take a moment of reprieve. But do not confuse this temporary relief with permission to slow down or step back from water conservation and mitigation efforts, if anything, we must move forward with even greater dedication, energy, and creative problem-solving to help Great Salt Lake and its wetlands thrive.

 

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