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Davis Journal

What would happen without the Great Salt Lake?

May 23, 2024 08:44AM ● By Braden Nelsen
An AI-generated image of a hypothetical photo taken from Antelope Island, showing a dry lakebed, withered plant life, and the haze that would pervade the Salt Lake Valley if the lake were to dry up. AI Image

An AI-generated image of a hypothetical photo taken from Antelope Island, showing a dry lakebed, withered plant life, and the haze that would pervade the Salt Lake Valley if the lake were to dry up. AI Image

Editors note: This is part one of a two-part series about what would happen if the Great Salt Lake were allowed to dry up.

GREAT SALT LAKE—There are many people on both sides of the Great Salt Lake debate: those who are passionate about saving the lake, and those who feel that Utah’s water and resources could be better used elsewhere. In the latter camp, many feel that the lake should be allowed to dry up, and the subsequent area developed, but, what would happen if, in fact, the lake dried up completely?

To preface, each of the described conditions that would be created by a dried-up Great Salt Lake is based on real-world examples that have occurred in other areas of the country, as well as areas of the lake that have already dried up. The statements below are also based on expert opinions collected from several different studies and experts.

Firstly, it would behoove residents to know just what that would look like. The Great Salt Lake, like other lakes, has a lakebed filled with silt – loose, uncompacted sediment brought from the tributaries that feed the lake. In addition, there’s also the local brine shrimp, as well as an extremely high percentage of salt in the water, hence the name. A dry Great Salt Lake bed would be a vast expanse of dry, cracked silty soil, laden with toxic particulates easily dispersed if the lakebed was disturbed by wind, weather, or animals.

Speaking of animals, one of the largest ways that life would be affected is the ecosystem. Everything in nature is connected in one way or another. Prey and predators, temperature, vegetation growth, all of it. In the case of the Great Salt Lake, over 330 species accounting for 10 million birds utilize the Great Salt Lake and surrounding wetlands. They use the lake currently to rest, feed, and breed. 

Eliminate the lake, and these birds’ numbers will fall drastically. There will be nowhere to rest, feed, or breed, and they will die out by the millions. Why should this be a cause of concern? Well, let’s take the great blue heron for example. The heron is just one species that calls the lake a temporary home. Herons not only control the population of insects and other birds, but they and their eggs are also food for other birds, even bears, and the American bald eagle.

With millions less available for bald eagles to feed on, their numbers, too will dwindle. Bald eagles, hawks, and other raptors that may feed on heron or their eggs contribute greatly to curbing the rodent population. Without these predators to feed on rats and mice, those numbers will surge, and, when they can’t find food out in the wild, they will come to the farms and cities to feed, bringing with them diseases like hantavirus, leptospirosis, and others.

Of course, this is just one small way in which the disappearance of the lake will directly affect those living here. For another example, one need look no further than the Salton Sea. Another saline lake, this one in California, the Salton Sea was a booming resort location in the 1950s and 60s, but, unlike the Great Sale Lake, Salton had no drainage. Due to many factors, such as runoff from agriculture which included pesticides, and desert evaporation, the saline levels in the lake rose significantly, causing an ecological disaster.

The fish and bird populations died out, the water began to stink horribly, and, as the lake dried up, the resulting particulates in the air contributed to some of the worst air quality in the United States. The Great Salt Lake is not the Salton Sea, but, the similarities between the two should give residents pause so that the salt-crusted derelict buildings that dot the former resort town don’t become Salt Lake City.