Guest Essay by Kip Hansen — 1 April 2023
[Note: There is some danger in posting an essay on the 1st of April of any year – danger that it will be taken as an April Fool’s joke. This, however is no joke, I only wish it was. Those hoping for a good April Fool’s, see this piece from CCNow, however, they don’t seem to realize that it is a joke.]
The Great Salt Lake, in northern Utah, is one of the iconic symbols of the Great Basin and Great Basin Desert regions of the American West. It is impossible to write about the Great Salt Lake without mentioning that, culturally, the entire region was once called “Mormon Country”, recognizing the influence of the Latter-Day Saint immigrants that settled the Salt Lake Valley, and much the American West, all the way from Chihuahua, Mexico to Alberta, Canada.
The Wiki summary:
“The Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth-largest terminal lake in the world. It lies in the northern part of the U.S. state of Utah and has a substantial impact upon the local climate, particularly through lake-effect snow. It is a remnant of Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric body of water that covered much of western Utah.”
What exactly is a terminal lake? Basically: “a drainage basin that normally retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies of water, such as rivers or oceans, where drainage converges instead into lakes or swamps, permanent or seasonal, that equilibrate through evaporation.” [ source ] More simply, it is a lake into which water flows but does not flow out, water only leaves through evaporation. The Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel is another well-known example.
This kind of lake presents some obviously interesting features when we think of “water budget”. If more water flows in than evaporates out, the lake will increase in size and depth. If more water evaporates out than flows in, the lake will shrink. Further, since only water leaves the lake, all the sediments and dissolved minerals that enter the lake with inflowing water will remain in the lake.
Thus, we get such phenomenon as the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Badwater Basin salt flats located in Death Valley. The Great Salt Lake is surrounded by salt flats on the West:
Ms. Terry Tempest Williams recently wrote a very moving, emotional, plea in an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled: “I Am Haunted by What I Have Seen at Great Salt Lake”. The text is accompanied by a series of beautiful photographs by Fazal Sheikh. Williams states: “I have known Great Salt Lake in flood and now in drought; between her highest level at 4211.8 feet in 1987 and her lowest at 4188.5 feet in 2022.”
This chart of lake surface elevation shows clearly: 1) The lake level has been falling since its high in the late 1980’s. 2) The lake level rises when the inflow is over 2.5 million acre-feet per year (MAF/yr). 3) The lake is at its lowest since 1980. 4) Periods of excess inflow lasting more than 2 years can substantially raise the lake level. 5) Since the turn of the century, water level slowly dropped by ten feet, from 4200 to 4190.
Those ten feet make a lot of difference to a lake that at its deepest had an average depth of 33 feet (~10 m) and has declined to 24 feet (~7.3 m) in recent years.
Why is the Great Salt Lake’s surface level falling?
Have you ever seen the magnificent and still relevant movie, Chinatown?
““Chinatown” is a film noir with a private eye and everything, but it also has a larger picture story. It’s a dramatization of the water wars that took over Los Angeles at one point. The character of Hollis Mulwray is reportedly based on William Mulholland, who was the superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He used that role to wield a ton of power. The road Mulholland Drive is named after him.” [ source ]
Utah has its own version of the California water wars – except the loser in these wars is the Great Salt Lake. Like many Western States, much of the land is naturally dry. In such places, agriculture needs a lot of water for irrigation to make up for the lack of natural rainfall during growing seasons.
In this photo of Heber Valley, we can see snow-capped peaks in the background, sprinkler irrigation in the mid-distance and a mixed herd of animals in the foreground.
It’s all about the water budget of the lake:
Much of the 1980s were wet years for the Great Basin, and subsequently for the Great Salt Lake, driving its surface water level to record heights. Hurrah? No, “Great Salt Lake just inches from disaster” screamed a headline in the Chicago Tribune in May of 1986. The water level was so high that:
“In 1982, after one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded, Great Salt Lake was monitored for expected flooding. Starting late May of 1983 the massive snowpack melted fast and the lake rose around 20 feet, nearly doubling its surface area. I-80 was swamped, downtown Salt Lake was swamped, and in other areas of the state, entire mountainsides washed away. Great Salt Lake’s flooding during this period is estimated to have caused around $240 million in damages to roads, railroads, private property, and infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants. “
The solution for the flooding? Utah’s Expensive Flooding Quick-Fix: The 1987 Bangerter Pumps. “
“…. in 1987, Utah installed three water pumps – 27 feet long, 17 feet tall, and each weighing 81 tons. They were a practical quick fix and were cheaper than other options that would need up to ten years to take effect. These pumps removed 1.3 million gallons of water per minute, feeding the water out into the West Desert. As for the environmental impact of this process, officials said ‘there’s virtually nothing out there, maybe a few lizards and one or two rabbits.’” [ source – both quotes above ]
Once the pumps started operating, water levels dropped. But so did streamflow into the lake, making the pumps unnecessary. The pumps haven’t been used since 1989, but are still maintained “just in case”.
And the real, present-time water budget? A January 2023 Technical Report, “Emergency measures needed to rescue Great Salt Lake from ongoing collapse” [ link is a pdf – referenced as Abbott et al. 2023 ] gives the nitty-gritty details, but, in fact, the only truly important points are these:
1) The Great Salt Lake is shrinking.
2) Drought is not the reason for the shrinkage, though more precipitation would improve matters. See the streamflow chart above, since 1988 (after the exceptionally wet El Niño flood years), streamflow into the lake has been flat, with some wetter years. The last two or three years have been drier.
3) “After millennia of natural fluctuations, human water use has pushed Great Salt Lake into structural decline. Since 2020, the lake has lost just over one million acre-feet of water each year” [ Abbott et al. ]
4) Streamflow into the lake plus precipitation, before diversions, would be approximately 3.7 million acre feet per year (MAF/yr).
5) But human usage, direct diversions of streamflow and direct extractions, run about 2.3 MAF/yr. Direct evaporation, the natural outflow for the lake, is estimated to be 2.6 MAF/yr.
Actual Inflow = 1.6 MAF/yr (precipitation plus streamflow that reaches the lake).
Outflow = Evaporation = 2.6 MAF/yr
Human extraction = 0.2 MAF/yr
Total Outflow = 2.8 MAF/yr
Lake deficit: 1.2 MAF/yr
There is far more water leaving the Great Salt Lake than enters the lake, thus it is shrinking. But, if all of the potential water reached the lake, precipitation plus streamflow, (3.7 MAF/yr), the lake would eventually be flooding Salt Lake City again. The critical number in the above chart is the 2.1 MAF/yr diverted to human use. The major factor for the human usage is agriculture coupled with population growth. The two are coupled, more people = more agriculture. And there has been a six-times increase in population since 1950.
Complicating things are Utah’s complex laws concerning water rights and water shares, which are not the same.
“Unlike many states, in Utah all water (above or below the ground) is owned by the public. Here’s the tricky part: to use water in Utah, you need permission from the state.
One of the biggest differences between water shares and rights is that water rights are considered “real property.” Water rights require a deed to be filed with your local county recorder’s office. Remember, buying land in Utah doesn’t automatically mean buying water. Someone else may control the water on your land, which can lead to legal battles regarding water use and ownership.
The terms of a water share are dictated by individual companies… A share represents a certain amount of the company’s water right. The state has granted them certain permissions, and as a share owner, you are subject to the same restrictions on the amount of water used, as well as restrictions regarding its usage.” [ source ]
If that sounds complex, complicated and impenetrable, then you have understood correctly. At the first “all water (above or below the ground) is owned by the public”, you might think that to recover the Great Salt Lake, the public, by referendum or vote, could simply demand that more water be allowed to enter the lake each year. But, almost all of the water is controlled by long-standing water rights that are owned by deed as real property (just as you might own your home and its land). And, just as the state may not take your land (some exceptions), it can not just take people’s water rights.
The Technical Study (Abbott et al.), which is really an advocacy paper on behalf of “saving the great Salt Lake”, calls for setting a minimum of 2.5 MAF/yr of streamflow being allowed to enter the lake – that requires an additional 1.5 MAF/yr more than the current average. That’s a lot of water.
What’s the solution?
In the real world, the one in which we live, the solution is to allow more of the water that falls onto the land in the Great Salt Lake watershed to flow naturally into the lake. Simple!
What has been done is that a foundation, Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, has been established by state law and seed money amounting to $40 million provided. The foundation operates in partnership with the National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy. The pubic can donate money and ….wait for it….water shares!
“On March 15, the Utah Department of Natural Resources announced that the church [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], which holds significant water rights within the Salt Lake watershed, was donating 5,700 water shares, or about 20,000 acre feet of water, permanently to Great Salt Lake. This is a significant gesture that hopefully will inspire other private donations of water rights to be managed by the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, established by the State Legislature in 2022 in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and The National Audubon Society.”
If others follow suit, there will be some slight improvement in the streamflows that add to the lake each year.
This year, however, Utah’s mountains are buried in snow. With twice the average snow water equivalent.
Overlaid on the Utah State Snow Water Equivalent map is a map of the Great Salt Lake watershed (pale tan). All of the overlapping areas (lighter blue) have snow water equivalents (SWE) far above average – in percentages: 256, 203, 217, 188, 161 and 132. Basically, twice the amount of water that is usually available will be flowing down the mountains towards the Great Salt Lake.
This view of SWE tells us how much water that is. In many parts of the watershed, 30 inches or more. The last time this happened regularly, year after year in the late 1980s, the Great Salt Lake flooded Salt Lake City. One good water year does not make a recovery, of course. And the residents of Utah are hoping for a slow gentle snow melt or rivers will be raging and flooding will take place.
The extra water from this just-ended winter will mean good short-term news for the lake.
And the future?
We don’t know. La Niña is giving way to El Niño and El Niño often, but not always, means more rain and snow in the Great Salt Lake watershed. More rain and snow means more water – for agriculture whose demands will lessen and thus a double helping for the lake.
Public efforts are increasing to replenish the lake, including within the true power in Utah, the LDS Church. Its donation of extremely valuable water shares to the conservation effort will act as signal Church members living in the watershed to follow suit and donate any of their excess water shares to the lake as well – 66% of the population of Utah identify as LDS.
The Salt Lake Metro Area has 400,000 housing units, and each one has a green grass lawn, watered at least twice a week. (see a Google map satellite view) These lawns are sod laid down atop sand and require frequent watering. In many Salt Lake Metro neighborhoods, home owners can be fined if they fail to keep their lawn watered and green – and, conversely, they can be fined if they use too much water. Despite the scarcity of water in the state, homeowners only pay an average of $40/month for water. This is less than homeowners pay in my water-rich part of New York State. Thus one solution would be to raise water rates to reduce usage and/or forbid the watering of lawns, road medians, golf courses (except greens, of course…).
Reducing the problem to its pragmatic minimum, Utah has to reduce water usage in the Great Salt Lake Watershed through water conservation (particularly in the agricultural sector) and allow more water to flow into the lake.
If things were only that simple….
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I have visited the Great Salt Lake. It is magnificent and somewhat horrifying….a vast body of water too salty for any normal use but supporting great deal of wildlife nonetheless. Migrating birds of many types use the lake and its marshlands as a stopover and feeding ground. It even has a sailing club!
I have watched bulldozers push hills of sand flat, over pre-laid utility lines and pipes, preparing for yet another sub-division of half-million dollar homes. I have watched them lay sod grown in the valleys above Salt Lake City down over the sand and water it into place. That grass will not draw water up through the sand as it would over soil, but must be top watered throughout the week.
Water conservation is a topic of discussion in Utah, but not a common practice.
Whatever Utah does to replenish the lake, if anything, they are liable to be defeated by Nature – either by a deepened drought (think: the a 300-year period of aridity called the Great Drought which may have caused the disappearance of the Anasazi) or by the return of a wet period such as that in 1985-1987 during which the rising lake flooded Salt Lake City. Humans are not in charge of the weather.
Thanks for reading.
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Salt Lake comment:
Why not ask all the tourists to bring a big bag of table salt to the lake and throw their salt into the lake. A sign should say “Not the whole bag, just throw in the salt from the bag”. Leftist tourists might be confused without such a sig). These table salt deposits will fix the lake, and improve people’s diets too?
Full April 1 article here:
Honest Climate Science and Energy Blog: Climate Science and Energy Merchandise for Sale
This comment is serious,
No way! It wouldn’t be serious even if it was posted tomorrow.
You are Meriweather and I claim the tenner.
I offer FREE typing classes. Your secretary is welcome to attend.
Typing is not important
Anyone can type
The photo is Tina Louise from the 1958 movie God’s Little Acre, where she was so hot she melted the film:
TINA LOUISE in “God’s Little Acre” (1958) – YouTube
Wow. I was four years old. And yes, she was that hot.
These “Great Salt Lakes” and their already dry end-members, salt flats, are all over the Basin and Range geologic province. They were filled during the last glacial cycle of the Ice Age we currently live in. They were drying up well before those pesky Europeans (and their pumps!) arrived. The proof of this is readily visible, you can walk along the old shore lines, sometimes hundreds of feet above current salt flats, and see the fish traps utilized by the Indigenous groups. The fish traps are an open entrance on the preferred side, then a maze leading to a holding area. Trying to “save” salt lakes is impossible, unless the next glacial cycle kicks in (in which case there will be other issues on people’s minds), so, Forget about it!
Very true. Current concepts of environmentalists are that the world as we see it today is polluted yet any further change is bad for the planet, so it must be frozen in time. Environmentalists refuse to acknowledge the constant change our planet has undergone in its 4.5 billion year history. Ours is a highly active planet in equilibrium with all of the forces and processes acting upon it and within it, most of them being cyclical in nature … meaning, “it” (whatever “it” is) goes up, then goes down, then goes up, then goes down.
If the warmunists were ever forced to acknowledge what most scientists and engineers have long known to be true and determinative, that nothing ever stays the same on earth … their entire religion would simply blow up.
Thanks, Duane. Here’s another aspect of your comment “…goes up, then goes down…” in that the average or normal temperature anywhere is actually from high to low, and average somewhere in the middle. When it is high the CAGW Loonies say, “See, Global Warming”, and when it is low they say “See, Climate Change”, and the whole time it is just normal.
Kip: As usual, a nice, complete,and as far as I can tell, accurate article
Ron: I know you’re a pretty good geologist. I’m not that good at it although I know a bit. Two questions:
Don, I don’t know the chemistry of the Great Salt Lake, other than both sodium and potassium salts. I suspect it has a fair amount of lithium, so persons in the path of dust storms delivering material from the salt flat will be so mellow it won’t bother them. My comments about salt flats in the Great Basin are general, you can walk all over Nevada and adjacent Utah and see wave-cut terraces from old glacial lakes, and it is easy to find the abandoned fish traps along the paleo-shoreline. The Great Salt Lake filled when the drainage to the north was blocked by glacier advancement, some arrangement that was not occurring in all of the glacial cycles. Great Basin arid? When you are caught in a thunderstorm you will understand what happens with internal drainage, it is spectacular.
Lithium – – no comments yet on the Salton Sink in southern California, but there are plans for lithium extraction from the geothermal deposit. Salton Sink was just that until the early 1900s when the Colorado River broke through a failed irrigation scheme and flooded the sink to become the Salton Sea. The sea is on its way to returning to sink status, with attendant air pollution problems.
There is a lithium extraction plant being developed somewhere around Battle Mountain, NV. Just learned about that today also. That area is diverse geologically. Lots of fracking going on just down the road from gold and silver mines, along with coal, gypsum and diatomaceous earth.
I actually drove past the Great Salt Lake West from SLC just today. I couldn’t get to Snowbird because of avalanche mitigation this morning, and will try to hit it again on my way home.
Anyway, there was more water on both sides of I-80 than I ever recall. It may be a seasonal thing. I do like that I-80 has an 80 mph speed limit now. I think one time I drove that section and it was 55.
With regard, to paleo shorelines, I just learned about that today at the museum in Lovelock, NV. Was told that caves 400 feet higher in elevation were just above the lake level a few thousand to 11,000 years ago. Human remains found under several feet of guano were large (giant) and some had red hair.
I asked about DNA analysis and apparently no samples were taken prior to remains being reinterred. There is a 11,500 year old mummy taken from a nearby location that is in the possession of some other museum.
Scissor ==> Very Interesting — see if you can find out more about the giant with red hair….
There is some fact and myth to it. https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-americas/lovelock-cave-003060
One of the sandals exhibited at the museum that I saw was quite large.
Scissor ==> Thanks — even more interesting.
The lake is, or at least was recently, a source of metallic magnesium from evaporation ponds.
Don K ==> There are concerns about the dust blowing off the dry portions of the GSL — similar to the dust off the Bonneville salt flats. Remember, for however long, water soluble salts have been washed into the GSL and none of them have left — it is all there (some being mined in the present). Whether or not there is any credible threat to human health is a different question.
The Lake Bonneville link is in the essay above. It is geologically important but unlikely to be naturally restored any time soon. The Bangerter Pumps pumped water out of GSL onto the Bonneville Flats for a few years in the late 1980s.
The Bonneville salt flats are much larger in area than the present Great Salt Lake, they’ve been there since long before any human occupation of the valley to the east of the lake, and the prevailing winds have always been westerly in that area. Dust particles laden with salts tend to get mobilized to high altitudes during very windy days, much higher and travel much farther than sand size particles, so would easily travel across the lake to the east side of the valley, even tens of thousands of years ago. This is not a new or novel phenomenon in this area.
Yet enviros are now claiming a sudden new threat to public health as a result of the shrinking Great Salt Lake due to newly mobilized salt laden dust particles.
Given all of these well proven facts, it would seem that any postulated human health impacts arising out of the shrinkage of the lake would have already manifested themselves throughout the entire history of human occupation of that valley. So where are the data showing new mortality and morbidity?
Ron ==> This Great Salt Lake has a very long and semi-stable history. It is a remnant of Lake Bonneville, the precursor of all those salt flats.
It has simply been robbed of its sustaining water, year after year, as agriculture in the watershed demands more and more water.
No one wants to revert the environmental history and re-create Lake Bonneville. But the Great Salt Lake is provides vital wildlife functions, increases local rainfall, etc.
Semi-stable is a good description. Take California’s Salton Sea, created in 1905 by a huge flood of Colorado River. It has been drying ever since.
Curious ==> Ah, but it was not a natural flood! It was a breach in a man-made irrigation canal:
“the current Salton Sea was formed when Colorado River floodwater breached an irrigation canal being constructed in the Imperial Valley in 1905 and flowed into the Salton Sink.” [ source ]
Curious ==> The last partial fill of the Salton Sink was, as Kip says the result of a Colorado River flood washing out a poorly engineered irrigation canal in 1905. But historically, the Colorado has refilled the Salton Basin every now and then on its own. See https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/05/220531091515.htm#:~:text=Lake%20Cahuilla%20got%20its%20water,Salton%20Trough%2C%20refilling%20Lake%20Cahuilla. Per that source, Lake Cahuilla had water in 1618-1636, 1486-1503, 1118-1241, 1007-1070, 930-966, and also 5-612 BCE and presumably many times earlier. The dates come from radiocarbon dating of tree stumps.
KIp, I like your articles and comments, but can you show me one salt lake/salt flat remnant, in the Great Basin, that was not in decline before Europeans arrived?
Ron ==> As with all other geological-time span features, growth and decline depend on the selected time span. The lake has been larger and smaller in human recorded history, The GSL is a remnant of a geologically relevant Bonneville Lake.
The time period relevant to the GSL is the 300 years of modern human settlement.
The saga of California’s Salton Sea is instructive in this context. Historical accounts of Wyatt Earp’s life refer to his crossing California’s “Salton Sink” on horseback. I was taken aback by that, since I knew it as the Salton Sea, and in my early environmentalist days (the 1970s) was alarmed by alarmists lurid tales of fish hurling themselves from the lake due to lack of oxygen caused by the most evil of all creatures, Man.
Later I learned that the Salton Sea didn’t exist between the years 1580 and 1905, part of a cycle of existence as a huge lake and a bone-dry desert. It had dried up completely in 1580, a scant three years after Nancy Pelosi’s first face lift, and remained in that state until 1905. That year, it was resurrected accidentally when a faulty irrigation project by the California Development Company allowed a huge amount of water to be diverted to it from the Colorado River. In the 1950s and 1960s, it became a resort area for Southern Californians. But then limited inflow caused its salinity to rise, killing off the fish and the water fowl which ate the fish (I don’t know who made up the lack of oxygen bit).
The resorts disappeared, the lake is awful, and the area is an economic ruin. And that is all due to more efficient water usage by evil Man’s agriculture – without whose inefficient use of water the Salton Sea wouldn’t have existed in the first place.
I think we’ve all learned something here.
Michael Kelly ==> I swam in the Salton Sea as a child….Dad took us there for a vacation. Dad was a great lover of natural and unnatural phenomena.
The Imperial Valley: You see how the s]desert blooms with a lot of water from the Colorado River, diverted for agriculture: The Salton Sea is at the top.
Great Salt Lake
“Salt reduction: targets for 2024 – GOV.UK”
“salt (or sodium) can cause raised blood pressure, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure often has no symptoms, and many people who have high blood pressure do not know it. “ eg Climate Alarmists.
Yes, it’s fools day….
strat ==> That’s the Salt Wars…still on going, despite definitive science pointing out the fallacy of “low sodium diets for all”.
It really must be April fools day. Yet it’s mad enough to be true.
Story Tip – Whatever You Can Lay Your Hands On
“BT Tower among tall buildings set to become wind turbines in net zero drive
Some of Britain’s tallest buildings, including the BT Tower, are to be converted into wind turbines to help Britain reach net zero under radical plans secretly approved by the Government.”
Where is V when we need him?
Won’t be able to have very long blades and is it strong enough to support them?
Wind turbines require rather substantial foundations. I suspect that these “tallest” buildings’ foundations were only constructed to support the building, not the massive loads of a large wind turbine. Thus either there will be some spectatular failures to rival the exterior insulation of high rise apartment buildings or the installed turbines will be small, virtue signaling only, ornaments.
They’d be better off putting lightning attractors on top, and storing THAT energy.
Utah has had a wet year this winter. The Great Salt Lake has already risen over 2 feet and the spring runoff has barely begun. The drought will return, but these things go in cycles. Maybe we should wait and see how this wet year turns out before we panic too much. The same advice could apply to climate change. Let’s see if the negative effects of warming outweigh the positive effects before we push the panic button.
Louis ==> Of course, as mentioned, whatever they do, if not reasoned and sensible, they are liable to be sideswiped by Nature itself. The lesson of the Bangerter Pumps…unused for near a quarter of a century now. But in its wisdom, the state of Utah keeps them maintained and ready for the flood years to come.
It is almost as difficult to store excess water as to store excess electricity?
Accurate, helpful, and timely essay, Kip! And, the snow storms continue here in the Heber Valley of northern Utah. I’m looking out my window right now (6 am, 4/3/23). It’s snowing and two feet of new snow is expected here through mid-week. Yes, hooray to the State of Utah for keeping the Bangerter Pumps, sand bags, etc., ready to go. Our weather is cyclic, as you and Louis correctly remind us. And, your bottom line says it all: “Humans are not in charge of the weather.” So, we, and our growing population, adapt to the wet and dry. Thanks for writing, Kip.
In Vermont we have plenty of good water, plus we have a stagnant population and not much industry, and no gambling
No gambling? Didn’t you elect Senator Bernie Sanders? Stagnant, yes.
Yep, any state that can elect a Bernie Sanders scares off any reasonable person from moving there.
Who would want to live around those loons??
“Humans are not in charge of the weather.”
Humans are also not in charge of the climate.
I know it’s April Fools Day, but this is real question: how much water would be made available to the GSL if they adopted a lawn naturalization policy like there is in parts of Arizona?
Yooper ==> Hard to tell, but it is a good idea and they should do it. Green lawns are not a sensible option in the deserts of the American west. Artificial turf can be laid down on the sand in yards when there are children that need a place to play.
Artificial turf may get a tad warm during desert summers.
Tom ==> Maybe use white artifical grass?
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen (or desert).
In the title, should be Its and not It’s (It’s = it is)
Let us be more careful about the difference between its and it’s.
J Boles ==> Marvelous! I blame my spell checker for all these little mistakes with common words — I corrected two or three when I first reviewed the as-published version of this essay, and missed that one.
(The spell-checker is a believable scapegoat…but it may just be ‘happy fingers” (they type whatever they want, not what I want and poor editing on my part).
Thanks! I always appreciate detailed readers.
Kip has done a splendid job of describing the situation here. The flats East of the Lake, where incidentally they have situated the new State Prison were flooded in 1983 and the water table was completely saturated so inflow had nowhere to go from the surface. People were fishing City Creek as it flowed down State Street. We are looking at as much or a bit more potential snowmelt as in 1983. Below-average temperatures are persisting, but so is snowfall, with as much as 40 to 60 inches of new snow expected next week. Alta ski resort is sitting at a season of 811 inches with a base of 222.
Water conservation has always been an issue, but modern societies often take the resource for granted. John Wesley Powell cautioned against extensive agriculture in the arid West and is probably spinning in his grave that they named Lake Powell after him.
At least the rivers will be running this year!
Mark ==> And will you be running the rivers?
Kip –I will to the extent possible. Didn’t snag any permits, but the Mighty Weber and Cataract Canyon are on the list. Did a Westwater last October. The picture is of me at the bottom of Hell’s Half Mile on the Green in the Gates of Lodore.
Mark ==> Do it for me — I used up my adventuring years in the Caribbean….
Mark ==> Are you a Utahn then?
The snowpack is certainly deep this year. Andhas a great deal of water in it (SWE). If you folks get a rapid melt, there will be hardships for some. Much of that water will make it to the lake, Raising the level, maybe 5 of the missing ten feet by summer.
Nonetheless, Utah has to do something to regulate the lake level for its wildlife value and, on the other hand, prevent a return of the 1987 flooding.
That means pragmatic, sensible planning and regulation of water usage, with the lake itself having representation in the decision making.
I am. Looking at Mt. Olympus out my window as I write. Seldom is it still covered with snow on April 1.
The Lake has been a major topic for all of the last year, and steps are being taken, if belatedly, but as you describe the politics and sensibilities are complex and heated for Utah rivers and water in general.
Mark ==> Watching General Conference today — seeing in the intro periods the background of Salt Lake City.
It does have an interesting history. Explorer Richard Francis Burton once visited (I am told he climbed Mt. Olympus), and Arthur Conan Doyle set the background for one of his Sherlock Holmes tales here.
Mark ==> Yes, but not always favorably — but that is the way of the world.
During the summer of 2022, winds carried dust from the exposed Great Salt Lake lakebed into the Ogden valley, which is several miles east of Ogden. Visibility was reduced to about one mile! It looked like dense fog. My understanding is that agriculteral use account for 70% or so of water use.
gdtkona ==> Yes, that is all true. Utahn Water Wars are preventing sensible approaches to maintaining at least minimum water levels in the lake.
Kip, nice essay. You remind us that ‘we’ tend to want homeostasis, while Mother Nature just does whatever she pleases. Stuff changes. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. But change is inevitable. On my SW Wisconsin dairy farm, the pastures are losing the last of their enormous burr oaks, because we have suppressed for now about 140 years the prairie fires that used to keep the former prairie savanna healthy and allowed their burr oaks to thrive. (The original log cabin part of the farmhouse was built in 1888.)
Rud ==> Ah, change….I suffer change myself (and kick against it).
How did the prairie fires help the burr oaks? What function did they play?
I am familiar with California’s Live Oaks that grow in grassland — grassland that is swept by grass fires every couple of years. But don’t understand the relationship very well.
Burr oaks are very fire resistant (thick corky bark) and very shade intolerant. The prairie fires burnt off shading scrub allowing young burr oaks to grow. Very large acorns provided fall food for whitetail deer and wild turkeys, both formerly predominantly found in the prairie oak savannas.
Rud ==> Thank you, I see it is the growth of seedling oaks….by removing competing grasses and brush.
Kip, great post, with a couple of quibbles. Great Salt Lake has never flooded Salt Lake City in recorded history. Not even close. There was widespread flooding in 1983, five years before the lake elevation max in 1987. This was due, as has been pointed out, to heavy late snow storms and cold that persisted into Spring. When temperatures returned to normal, the melting snow pack came crashing down the numerous canyon streams of the Wasatch mountains, overwhelming storm drains and clogging them with debris in addition all along the Wasatch Front. The part of Salt Lake City closest to the GSL is the airport, which is about 4-5 miles West of City Center. The airport has an elevation of 4,222 feet. The lake maximum level in 1987 was 4,211 feet. That maximum was only 11 feet above the lake’s 140 year average and median level. So to flood the airport, the lake level would have had to reach over double its highest level increase in recorded history. The elevation of Salt Lake City is 4,265 feet, increasing in elevation the closer one gets to the mountains. The main impetus for installing the west desert pumps was due to the threat that the lake would inundate Interstate 80, which skirted the South end of the lake. GSL historic level information was taken from https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/10010000/#parameterCode=62614&period=P7D.
Steve ==> Thanks for the more detailed report of flooding in and around the Great Salt Lake. In my essay, I am using Slat Lake City to include all parts of the Salt lake Metro area and its infrastructure, some of it which will be endangered by flood stages of the GSL.
We hope for the best for the lake and the wildlife it supports.
OK, so what? If the lake dried out what difference does that make? The birds, being in flight, will stop somewhere else.
BTW, the Dead Sea is also drying out, and for the same reason. The water that flows into it from the Jordan River is being diverted for human use. there is an interesting proposal to refill the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea. The quarter mile declivity would allow the water to be used to generate a fair amount of electricity, some of which would be used to desalinate part of the water.
Walter, it is rather more complex than that. It would not just affect the migrant ducks and geese, the seagulls, pelicans, curlews, and egrets. The water cycle of the Wasatch is dependent on the lake. It is not just a water reserve, it is a thermal buffer that directs much of the precipitation for the range. Its absence would dramatically alter the ecosystem.
Thanks Mark, the whole environment there is related to the lake in one way or the other. I was stationed there from 1979 to 1985 and got to know the place.
Kip talks about laying the sod on sand, but just go up one “bench” ( visible signs of old levels of Lake Bonneville) and you have real rich dirt.along the Wasatch. I planted my small bluegrass lawn with seed, not sod and it flourished along with flowers and veggies. North of Ogden you have the “fruit way”, and just about all the homes on the benches east of the lake have cherry trees without doing anything special. Folks using sod are out near the lake and likely about 4200 feet or so. Just a few hundred feet above to the east and you have great soil to work with, but still need irrigation, just not a lot. My place was about 4700 ft or so along the front range. Had super tulips, daffodils, etc and best green beans and peas ever on my fence. We even had wild asparagus!
The lake is one reason the ski resorts have such great snow. It has a unique character, as many will attest. So without humans, it snows in the Wasatch mountins or Uintahs, then the water runs back to the lake or maybe south to the Green River and then to the Colorado.
Beginning with the LDS folks, water was diverted day one from the various rivers and used for irrigation. But the explosive growth in population has prolly used more water for drinking water and sanitary reasons and such then for crop irrigation.
Shame to see the lake drying up, and where will we get all those “sea monkeys” for our aquariums?
Gums ==> Yes, up the benches into the hills and there is soil, down nearer the lake they have sand sand, as you know.
It is the great soil up on the valleys that made the Salt Lake Basin a haven for immigrants, including some of my distant ancestors.
Walter ==> Do some reading on the value of the GSL and its marshes to migrating birds.
That might change you attitude.
And, as for the Dead Sea, it is shrinking for the same reason. Maybe it shouldn’t be.
I remind y’all that the Dead Sea peaked in depth in 1936 when the global temperature last peaked. It may be that with a rise in global temperature to what it was in the Roman optimum or even 5000 years before that, we might see the Dear Sea and GSL much higher. Sea level as certainly a lot higher 2000 years ago. When temps peaked ~8000 years ago the whole Sahara was grassland due to increased precipitation. It is hard to see a downside to a warmer world.
This post exemplifies the earlier Willis Eschenbach post:
Note the horizontal line dividing a lighter color lake to the north from the darker color lake to the south. That is not a satellite image seam. It is the Lucin Cutoff.
I emphasize the quote:
“When the railroad came through in 1869, the two rival companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, built their tracks around the north end of Great Salt Lake, BECAUSE THE LAKE WAS IN A HIGH CYCLE, and technology was not up to the task of bridging the lake. In 1898 Edward Henry Harriman acquired control of the Union Pacific Railroad, and three years later in 1901 he gained control of the Southern Pacific—successor to the Central Pacific. His modernization of the line included a technological feat of magnificent proportions.”
The graph for lake elevation starts in 1980 and does not include more than a century of earlier lake elevation data.
Neil ==> Yes,and I am sorry we don’t have a longer reliable data set for the lake levels — if you know of one, please include a link.
We do have reliable anecdotal records from 1847 or so, with the record keeping of the early Mormon settlers. And the physical record of water level highs and lows recorded in the Earth and soil.
The graph of lake levels is used as we had actual measurements — and it is from an advocacy Technical report, meant to emphasize the shrinking of the lake — from the high points of the 1980s to the low point today.
Kip – I checked at the USGS website and located the link to data from 1847 to present.
# US Geological Survey, Water Resources Data
# retrieved: 2023-04-01 23:07:13 EDT (vaww01)
# This file contains USGS Surface-Water Daily Statistics
# Note:The statistics generated from this site are based on approved daily-mean data and may not match those published by the USGS in official publications.
# The user is responsible for assessment and use of statistics from this site.
# For more details on why the statistics may not match, visit https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/?dv_statistics_disclaimer.
# ** No Incomplete data have been used for statistical calculation
I did a trial download. The format appears to be not straightforward. Last time I used data like this I ended up writing a FORTRAN program to get it in the format I needed to use. Note the data is said to be in NGVD 29 (National Geodetic Vertical Datum 1929). Current datum is NAVD 88 (National Agency VD). Link to conversion:
Neil ==> Thanks for the link(s). The official sources have been moving away from publicly accessible data to these more complete, more scientific formats, ensuring that scientists with advanced programs can access the data but locking the public out.
I found this in an unrelated paper:
I’m so olde that I remember just a few years ago when the Great Lakes were going to flood out all the decaying cities in the entire USA rust belt.
Now they are all headed downward to the long-term average:
Seems this Climate Change thingy can turn on a dime.
Dan Hughes ==> I am waiting to receive a commission to write about water levels in the Great Lakes. They are surprisingly variable, and hard to correlate with climate conditions — with Lake Superior being far less variable….
Highs recently in 1987, 1997, and 2001…and falling 4 feet or so in the last few years.
The GSL problem is similar to the Lake Powell. In the case of Lake Powell, there has been an increasing amount of water released from the reservoir, with no change in inflows. Whereas, in the case of the GSL it is the inflows that have been changed.
I remember the problems caused by the rising GSL in the mid-eighties. State Street was sand bagged and used as a water course to divert water to the Lake. When the pumps were brought into SLC, there was a parade with the pumps as the highlight. But my memory is a little fuzzy on the use of the pumps. I seem to remember that the environmentalists shut down the pumps not soon after they were started, and they were never restarted. Not that they needed to be, as you point out, the inflows changed.
SMS ==> Ah, a fine mind! Yes, the problems are similar yet different! Lake Powell and Lake Mead are low, not because of “drought” — streamflows have remained steady averaged over decades — but OUTFLOW has been increased to water a thirsty West.
GSL is low because the water it diverted before it gets to the lake — a different kind of outflow.
The pumps ran for a time, lowering the lake levels and saturating the Bonneville Flats. See this link on the pumps.
Interested readers might care to google the Aral sea.
Leo ==> A true ecological disaster — created by greed and Soviet Central Planning.
Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.
That snow map of Utah. The SW portion feeds the Virgin River, which goes to Lake Mead. March 22- 23, 2023, had light rain covering parts of Nevada, Arizona and Utah. The Virgin River went from the usual 100 to 200 cfs (cubic feet per second) to 12,900 cfs. It has been quite cool and wet on the area this winter, and it is possible to likely there will be a rather sudden return to normal temperatures, causing a quick melt and lots of flooding. And if more rain falls on the snowpack……
Summer thunderstorms last August and September in Northern Arizona, Eastern Nevada and Southwest Utah raised the level of Lake Mead by 5 feet. Do not underestimate natural forces.
If you want to show lake levels, show the whole history. Showing only the peak and subsequent decline is not the height of full disclosure.
Tee Jay ==> Southwestern watersheds are interesting…the tan portion of the map I supplied is the GSL watershed, with its western section usually very dry desert.
At the SW corner, the watershed divide runs NE to SW, below which the water heads for rivers leading to the Colorado and Lake Mead.
There is always the time problem…..I used the data from the news piece and the Technical Report under discussion. I did manage to find a much longer record though it doesn’t extend to present…several pieces.
For interest, here it is:
Eighty-five winters ago, skiers were first drawn to Alta by the promise of powder days. Eighty-five years later we are experiencing a special winter—one that has delivered storm after storm and the continued promise of powder days.
As of March 31st, Alta Ski Area has received 803 inches of snow on the season—the snowiest season in the 43-year history of the Collins study plot.
Ireneusz Palmowsk ==> Yes, they are having a marvelous snow year….and we wait to see how quickly or slowly it melts.
There will be more snow in the western US.
Ireneusz Palmowski ==> I was born and raised in Los Angeles and have remained fascinated by weather in the Southwest — can’t tell you how many nights I slept under the stars in its deserts.
My childhood memories are of snowpack topping the mountains that surround the Los Angeles Basin — and tobogganing (Saturday) and surfing (Sunday) over a single weekend.
More snow and a slow melt are the best combination….wishing and hoping.
Currently, there is a strong decline in solar activity. Three faint spots are now visible on the solar disk.
Heavy snowfall over Great Salt Lake.
SNOW IN UTAH: 3 April 23 (Click Image to view larger)
Thanks for another thoughtful and well analysed article. I must have driven past The Great Salt Lake in the 1980s because I remember the flooding.
Your reporting on the mothballed pumps reminded me of the rush to giant seawater desalination plants in Australia during the Millennium Drought. Except in Perth, I think they were all soon mothballed or run at the bare minimum to keep them functional.
Also, I suppose that Lake Eyre must be in a similar situation to the Bonneville Basin – except without the snow melt and with a much more extreme cycle. It was last flooded in 2019 and now is dry as a bone.
Anyway, I was going to ask if you had done anything on lawns? Lawns are one of my personal bêtes noires, because even in well-watered areas they are biological near deserts. One thing that anyone can do to improve the diversity in their neighbourhoods is to get rid of the lawns and introduce some plant structural diversity – birds and pollinators will be especially grateful if you use native plants. Expect reduced water bills too, once the native plants are established.
That picture showing the Great Salt Lake and it’s nearby salt flats is misrepresentative.
Leaving Salt Lake City and driving west, it is a quick trip across the lake.
Then it takes hours driving at 70 mph – 75 mph to cross the Bonneville salt flats.
The great Salt Lake is the terminal result of all those salt flats accumulating as the lake water evaporated.
Nor is that salt a thin layer crusting the top. It is many inches thick through much of the salt flats.
Let Salt Lake City and surrounding environs use all of the local water. Morton will continue mining and selling the salt.
I have little doubt that SLC’s UHI temperatures will get much hotter.