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'It's clear the lake is in trouble': Great Salt Lake reaches historic low

By Adriana Navarro, Accuweather.com

Water levels at Utah's Great Salt Lake reached a new historic low on Sunday, and officials project levels will continue to drop for the next few months.

The lake's average daily surface water elevation was measured as 4,190.1 feet at the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Saltair Boat Harbor on the southern end of the lake. Last year, on July 23, the same gauge recorded the average daily level of 4,191.3 feet, and the water level continued to plunge to 4,190.2 feet by late October.

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Officials believe the lake levels this year will also continue to plunge until fall or early winter when storms roll in and agricultural irrigation ends for the season. The persistent drought in the West, exacerbated by climate change, as well as water diversions from the Bear River Watershed have long contributed to its depletion.

"This is not the type of record we like to break," Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry said in a joint news release from the USGS and the Utah Department of Natural Resources. "Urgent action is needed to help protect and preserve this critical resource. It's clear the lake is in trouble. We recognize more action and resources are needed, and we are actively working with the many stakeholders who value the lake."

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In 2021, the lake's shrinking water levels prompted The Salt Lake Tribune, one of America's oldest continuously published newspapers west of the Mississippi River, to ask AccuWeather mapmakers, with whom the paper partners, to redraw the lake.

"Our maps stay the same for the average level of the lake, and as a news organization, it doesn't make sense anymore," Grant Burningham, the managing editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, told AccuWeather National Weather Reporter Bill Wadell late last year.

With the lake about half the size it used to be, the newsroom made the call in order to raise awareness around just how much the lake has changed in recent years and also to more accurately depict the lake's current state.

RELATED Another human body found at Lake Mead in Nevada; 2nd in a week

"Maps need to reflect what's going on, and this map," Burningham said, pointing out the deficiencies of the previous map of the state, "does not reflect what's going on."

A "death spiral" was how Burningham had described the state of the lake, which is in turn connected to the area's ecosystem and economy.

Should the Great Salt Lake continue to dry up, a state assessment from 2019 found the economic toll to Utah could span from $1.69 billion to $2.17 billion a year and result in over 6,500 job losses. Over the course of 20 years, these costs could be as high as $25.4 billion to $32.6 billion, the assessment emphasizes.

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The lake contributes an estimated $1.32 billion to Utah's annual economy, according to a 2012 report that the assessment references. However, this estimate is in 2010 dollars. When adjusted for inflation, the estimate would equate to at least $1.77 billion.

The health of the nearly 3 million people who live around the Great Salt Lake will also be impacted, with exposed lakebed dust containing levels of arsenic.

"Every single measurement that I took out on the Great Salt Lake had higher arsenic concentrations than would be recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency," Kevin Perry, an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah who has studied the impacts on the lake, told Wadell in 2021. To answer the question of just what was in the dust, he biked out to collect samples every 500 meters across the exposed lakebed.

Even if the dust didn't contain arsenic, the combination of wind and dust would still pose a health hazard if the concentration was high enough, Perry added.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in Utah, desperate for a solution to the worsening problem, voted to commission a study on the feasibility of piping in water from the Pacific Ocean to replenish the Great Salt Lake.

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"Dire times call for dire measures," Utah Rep. Carl Albrecht said at the time, according to a report by KUTV. "Water's going to become pretty valuable for drinking, sewer and irrigation. We run pipelines all over this country full of gas and oil and whatever."

Meanwhile, other lakes and reservoirs across the West have also suffered the consequences of harsh drought and water diversions.

The growing "bathtub ring" around Lake Mead, is seen near Hoover Dam, where water levels have declined dramatically in Boulder City, Ariz., on May 22. Lake Mead has dropped below 1,050 feet, a milestone level as the Las Vegas valley's water supply dwindles during a 22-year drought. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

In late June, water levels at Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam that sits between Arizona and Nevada, reached the lowest point since the lake was filled in the 1930s. The reservoir is the nation's largest by volume.

Lake Mead and its declining water levels gained national attention after the federal government formally declared a water shortage in August for the first time since its construction. From June 2021 to June 2022, the water levels at the reservoir dropped an additional 26 feet, and water levels are projected to continue to drop until the wet season begins in November, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

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The receding shoreline hasn't exposed arsenic-laden soil, but it has revealed an intake valve and at least two sets of human remains.

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