The Fate of the Lake – Great Salt Lake Summit

by Discover Davis

“Seagulls? In Utah??” A barista in Portland, Maine exclaimed after telling her how visiting this coastal town reminded me a lot of my home in northern Utah because of the familiar calls of seagulls. Surely an anomaly in a landlocked state where these actual sea birds must have taken a wrong turn somewhere to end up in the desert state. However, what some people may not realize is that Utah really does have a sea of its own, parts 10x saltier than the ocean and a remnant of the vast and ancient Lake Bonneville, where seagulls and shorebirds alike live and visit. This unique landmark has been making headlines recently as its shrinking shores are sparking anxiety over its sustainability and what it might mean for those of us who live here and those of us who love to visit. The drying lake is forcing us to consider questions like: “What exactly do we get from the lake and why is it worth saving?” If you’re like most people and don’t really understand its usefulness, other than being a cool landmark that is stinky and buggy, then we are here to provide a brief overview of the implications of the drying lake, why it’s important, and some extra resources and articles.

Presentations at the Summit
The lake, one of the largest in North America, has dropped 11-feet. Scientists from the University of Utah warned the crowd of toxic dust that could threaten public health over time, declining snow pack and water from lake-effect generated storms and billions in lost economic opportunity. In addition to climate and health, the lake is a refuge for millions of migratory birds.

– Ben Winslow Fox13

We are grateful for house speaker Brad Wilson for lighting the beacon, a call for saving our Great Salt Lake before it’s too late, and convening the first-ever Great Salt Lake Summit on Wednesday, January 5th at the Davis Conference Center in Layton to discuss the lake’s far-reaching impacts on our community. By gathering a community of researchers, environmental advocates, industry leaders, and lawmakers together to discuss policy solutions moving forward was a great step in this conversation for the lake’s future.

Aerial shots of the shrinkage from 1974 – 2018 by Friends of the Great Salt Lake

Lowering lake levels have far-reaching consequences

Photo: Joshua Adam Photography
Man Skiing the Snow Basin
Photo: Cam McLeod, Snowbasin

Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network

The Great Salt Lake supports 1.4 million shorebirds annually and is an important staging and breeding ground for many different bird species.


Losses from the mineral and brine shrimp harvesting industries, recreation and tourism, waste assimilation, and adjacent ecosystem services, will have a large impact on our economy.

This report estimates that each year, the Great Salt Lake produces 1.32 billion in total economic output.

Public Health

The dry lake bed that is exposed after water levels have decreased, has minerals within the sediment that can be picked up by wind storms and released into our air, contributing to air pollution that affects human health.

The Greatest Snow on Earth

Lake-effect is a large contributing factor to our “Greatest snow on Earth.” This produces above-average snowfalls when cold winds from the west move across the long expanse of the GSL’s warmer water, providing energy and picking up water vapor that freezes and is then deposited in the mountains.

Similar Cases: Aral Sea & Owens Lake

The Great Salt Lake is the largest terminal lake in North America, terminal meaning that it doesn’t have any outflow of water. Comparing this to other inland, terminal lakes have seen disastrous after-effects of their shrinkage on not only their environment, but public health, the economy, and air quality. Anyone who has been in our soupy inversion knows all too well that our air quality is already at stake, but a dry lake bed increases the risk of toxic dust storms that will have big impacts on public health. Mitigating these effects after the lake is gone is costlier than preventative efforts now.

Aside from dire economic and public health impacts, we love our lake and the unique wetland habitat it has created for our feathered friends, as well as the fun recreational opportunities it provides to residents and visitors alike, isn’t something we want to lose. If you’re interested in more information, we’ve included some good resources below for further reading.

“Perhaps one day we will wake up and it will be gone. Or, if not gone, reduced to a distant noxious puddle where only the most extreme (and stinky) microorganisms can survive. But are we saying goodbye to the Great Salt Lake—or is the Great Salt Lake saying goodbye to us?”
Bill Gifford Outside

More resources and reading material: