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Great Salt Lake drops to record-tying historic low

Posted at 10:42 PM, Jul 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-20 22:45:34-04

SALT LAKE CITY (KSTU) -- The Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere, has dropped again to a historic low, Utah's Department of Natural Resources confirmed.

On Tuesday morning, the Great Salt Lake was confirmed to have dropped to an elevation daily average of 4,191.4 feet, tying the previous record set in 1963. It is expected to drop even lower in the coming days — if it hasn't already.

Great Salt Lake video

"We are concerned about the continual decline of the lake levels that have been exacerbated by the drought we're in," said Candice Hasenyager, the deputy director of Utah's Division of Water Resources.

Some environmentalists had claimed the lake had already dropped, but state officials disputed that — relying on daily averages instead of moment-by-moment monitoring of a fluctuating lake for a clearer picture. The new low was recorded on Monday and verified on Tuesday morning with the U.S. Geological Survey, the DNR said.

The Great Salt Lake has seen consistently declining levels over the past few decades (in 1986 it hit an all-time high). The lake's declines have been brought on by development and growth in Utah that diverts water, climate change, and now the mega-drought the state is in.

"How we use water matters," Hasenyager said. "Use your water wisely, especially during the drought."

In a brief interview with KSTU on Tuesday morning, Governor Spencer Cox signaled his alarm. He said the state was working to come up with solutions to protect it. He said Utahns continuing to conserve water can help the Great Salt Lake recover.

"The more water we save, the more water there is to run into the Great Salt Lake. So we’re working with scientists with our various departments and nationally on what it’s going to take to keep those levels high enough, to keep that ecosystem viable. We can’t lose that ecosystem," he said.

The Great Salt Lake helps to cool the area and generates a lot of snowpack through "lake effect," helping to replenish reservoirs. The lake provides a refuge for millions of migratory birds each year. It is also an economic driver for the state with mineral extraction, brine shrimp harvest, and pumping powder into the lucrative ski industry.

"This system is ecologically significant," said Lynn De Freitas, the director of Friends of Great Salt Lake, a group dedicated to protecting the lake.

A diminishing lake bed will increase air pollution problems in northern Utah, kicking up dust and potentially toxic minerals and blowing them into communities nearby. But De Freitas said part of the problem is the lake doesn't have the same level of protection as other bodies of water. For example, water that enters the Great Salt Lake is considered "wasted," because it's so salty and it provides little "benefit."

The Utah State Legislature will be considering bills to change the legal definition of the water to give it some additional protections and guard against diversion. De Freitas said it would help significantly, as the Great Salt Lake is called a "terminal system," meaning that water that hits the lake ends there.

De Freitas told KSTU she did not believe it was too late to save the Great Salt Lake. But she said everyone has to play their part.

"We need to conserve our water, reduce our water use and recognize a change in behavior for freeing up water," she said. "But in order to make it come to the lake, we need to ensure the stewardship of the water getting here."

This story was originally reported by Ben Winslow on FOX13Now.com.