Great Salt Lake in 'dire state' as Western drought worsens

·8 min read

It's been nearly two months since Utah's governor asked citizens to pray for rain.

Having issued two drought emergencies over the course of three months and requested citizens to do their part in saving water, Gov. Spencer Cox asked for Utahns to take the first weekend of June to call upon "divine intervention," regardless of religious affiliation.

"By praying collaboratively and collectively asking God or whatever higher power you believe in for more rain, we may be able to escape the deadliest aspects of the continuing drought," Cox said during a video statement.

A month later, Gunnison Reservoir near Sterling, Utah, ran dry. It was listed at 0% capacity on July 10 with other reservoirs projected to follow. Of the state's 42 largest reservoirs, 26 of them were below 55% of available capacity as of July 21, according to the governor's office.

More than 99% of Utah is currently experiencing at least extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Nearly 70% of the state is experiencing exceptional drought conditions, including the area around Salt Lake City.

More than 99% of Utah is experiencing at least extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Roughly 70% of the state is experiencing exceptional drought conditions. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Utah's capital and most populous city have had 58% of average precipitation since Oct. 1, 2020, which is the beginning of the water year. And it isn't the only area facing these concerns.

"That's a part of a long-term trend across the West. Many areas since Oct. 1 have only seen precipitation in the range of 25% to say 60% of average," AccuWeather Meteorologist Randy Adkins said.

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This widespread lack of rain is exacerbating other issues as well, from the housing crisis to the intense heat and possibly to the residents' health.

Oakley, Utah, a city with an estimated population of just under 2,000 and under an hour's drive east of Salt Lake City, made headlines in The New York Times this month on account of the lack of water directly hindering the city's growth.

Back in the spring, Oakley imposed a construction moratorium, halting the construction of new homes that would connect to the town's water system. It's one of the first United States towns to stall growth for the arrival of rain, the Times reported, but it may not be the last.

"These towns are canaries in the coal mine," Paul D. Brooks, a professor of hydrology at the University of Utah, told the Times. "They can't count to go to the tap and turn on the water. Climate change is coming home to roost right now, and it's hitting us hard."

The reservoirs aren't the only lakes currently feeling the impact of the drought.

AccuWeather's Tony Labauch joined Jaimi Butler, the coordinator for Great Lake Institute at Westminster College, at the shore of the Great Salt Lake, where she shared how diverting water from the lake's water sources and drought have thrown the ecosystem into a "dire state."

Pink water washes over a salt crust on May 4, 2021, along the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake. The lake has been shrinking for years, and a drought gripping the American West could make this year the worst yet. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

"If the lake weren't so low, if we had not been diverting a lot of water and we weren't in a drought, we would have about 10 feet of water over our head," Butler told Labauch as the two stood on the now dry lakebed.

Those diversions, which are primarily used for agricultural use, have played a role in the lake's water levels reaching historic lows. The lake is down by 16 feet, Butler said, but only 5 feet of that total has been blamed on the drought. And as the water is diverted, it throws off the chemical balance of the lake, she said.

"When water levels decrease at Great Salt Lake, it doesn't just change the water level. It also means that there's less water, and it concentrates the salt. And so all of the chemistry in the water changes," Butler explained.

A lone bison walks along the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake on his way to a watering hole on April 30, 2021, at Antelope Island, Utah. The lake's levels are largely expected to hit a 170-year low this year. It comes as the drought has the U.S. west bracing for a brutal wildfire season. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

This impacts the lake's inhabitants, all the way down the food chain to the brine shrimp, also known as sea monkeys. The exportation of the lake's brine shrimp as fish food contributes to an estimated $1.5 billion economy, according to CNN.

In addition to the economic cost, experts are concerned over the receding shorelines giving way to a dusty lakebed, which contains traces of harmful substances.

"We're going to start seeing effects on people here pretty soon also," Butler warned. "These dry lakebeds and shorelines, when the dust blows across these playas and these shorelines, it kicks dust up into the air that can contain things like arsenic," she explained. "We're starting to get worried about human health effects also with the drying Great Salt Lake."

More than 200,000 people live in Salt Lake City alone, and Butler estimated around 3 million people live around the Great Salt Lake shore.

The lack of rain has also exacerbated the intense heat that has been wearing down the West.

The month of June for Salt Lake City was 10-and-a-half degrees above average, according to Adkins. "Typically, if you're going to see something that's that significant above average, it's usually during a transition month in the spring or in the fall. So to have that happen during the heart of the summer is quite incredible."

The city also saw the temperature skyrocket to a record 107 degrees Fahrenheit on June 15, tying its all-time record high and setting a new record for June. The month also saw the mercury rise to at least 100 on eight days -- another record.

Adkins pointed out that the month of July has averaged roughly 9 degrees above average for the city, which could lead to the warmest July on record as well.

"Summers have been getting warmer on average over the last few years, and there are a variety of reasons for that. Some of these are long-term trends that have changed with, for example, La Niña being a little more frequent here recently, but there's also been climate change tied into this as well," Adkins said, adding that the fact that the climate is changing leads to these types of events becoming more common.

William and Kayla Darling play with their son King along the Great Salt Lake Tuesday, June 15, 2021, near Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City set another heat record Tuesday, June 15, 2021, and experienced its hottest day of the year as the state's record-breaking heat wave persists. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

While a long-term fix to the brutal temperatures would rely on the current La Niña pattern switching to the El Niño pattern to bring more moisture in, Adkins noted that an increase in the monsoon moisture could help alleviate some of the heat in the short-term.

But even if Utah were to see an above-average season of rainfall, this drought goes beyond what one summer's worth of rain can fix. In fact, it's not necessarily rain alone that can solve the problem. The region needs snow. And lots of it.

Changes in the snowpack represent one of the best documented hydrological signs of climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The snowpacks are also essential to water supplies across the West, as they slowly release water as temperatures rise during the warmer months.

But over the years, observations have indicated a decrease in total snowfall as well as a transition to more rain and less snow across the West.

"The lower and mid-elevations of the Wasatch Mountains receive much more rainfall than snowfall now, and that has implications on water storage," Kevin Perry, associate professor in atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, told AccuWeather National Reporter Tony Laubach.

In times of drought, dry soil absorbs and stores a substantial amount of water from rainfall in the watersheds above reservoirs, preventing that water from flowing into and refilling reservoirs, according to the USGS.

Utah finished the last winter with a severely depleted snowpack, and unfortunately, it may take some time to build back up.

"What it's going to take is multiple winters on end where we see precipitation at minimum slightly above average, and comfortably above average would be nice," Adkins said. "Unfortunately, one winter's not going to put a dent into the long-term drought."

AccuWeather National Reporter Tony Laubach.

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