Tourists visit the Great Salt Lake on November 19, 2021. The lake officially hit its lowest level on record in October 2021. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
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SALT LAKE CITY — In the days following his arrival in what is now the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young and a handful of other leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ventured to the Great Salt Lake.
They bathed in the water of the lake, near a rock which will later be used to measure lake water levels, before returning to Salt Lake City.
But the Great Salt Lake is no longer as big as before.
Lake levels hit an all-time high last year (4,190.2 feet), breaking records that date back to the same year the pioneers arrived, in 1847. State natural resource officials say t is possible, if not probable, that lake levels will become even lower this year as not all of the current snowpack will reach its natural destination.
The Great Salt Lake does not provide drinking water, but its health is still vital to the people of Utah and the millions of creatures that live or travel there. That’s why state lawmakers unanimously passed a bill last week to provide $40 million for lake watershed improvements.
The lake’s significance is also why more than a dozen Utah information, education, and media organizations—sometimes competing organizations—come together for the first time as the Great Salt Lake Collaborative. The collaboration will provide coverage that discusses the current state of the lake and possible solutions that could save it before it’s too late.
The collaboration is funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation through the Solutions Journalism Network Local Media Project.
Why the Great Salt Lake matters
Not only did the Great Salt Lake hit an all-time low last year, but its levels are also about half of its historic average. The Utah Department of Natural Resources reported last month that levels have been rising since hitting a historic low in October, but the rise will likely end when the irrigation season begins this spring.
This is when some of the water from the lake’s tributaries is shared by landowners who have water rights. The department says the inflow is needed for the lake to overcome its typical summer drop of about 2.3 feet.
The Great Salt Lake is important for many reasons. As noted by the Deseret Newsa study published ten years ago found that the Great Salt Lake has an economic value of $1.32 billion, including a $67 million brine shrimp industry.
A healthy lake has the potential to increase snow levels in northern Utah through lake effect snow. A dry lake exposes dust that can be blown into nearby communities, causing air quality problems and also damaging mountain snowpacks, according to research from the University of Utah. Snowpack runoff makes up about 95% of the state’s water supply.
It is estimated that more than 10 million birds of 338 species use the Great Salt Lake each year, according to Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. This includes one of the largest colonies of pelicans on Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake.
These are just a few examples of how important the Great Salt Lake is to Utah.
Collaborative information work
The goal of the Great Salt Lake Collaborative Effort is to provide information about the problems of the Great Salt Lake and what can be done to solve them.
The collaboration will include articles and other media, including photographs, that will highlight the current situation, what can be done to help the struggling lake, and the challenges of returning water.
Some of the coverage can be found at KSL.com; however, full coverage of the Great Salt Lake can also be found in the rest of the Collaborative Team, which includes:
- Amplify Utah
- Desert News
- Fox 13
- The Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College
- KSL TV
- KSL NewsRadio
- Salt Lake City Public Library
- Salt Lake Community College Community Writing Center
- Salt Lake Grandstand
- standard examiner
- The west view
- Utah Film Center
- Utah Public Radio
- Utah State University (independent researcher)
If you have ideas or want to share your experiences with the lake, you can also participate through this survey.
This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.