Experts say record snowpack likely extends Great Salt Lake’s long-term prospects by 2 years

This article is published by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to educate people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to help make a difference before it’s too late. Read all of our stories below

Kevin Perry isn’t entirely surprised by this year’s record snowpack.

Utah’s snow cover, a measure of the water contained in the snow falling into the mountains, reached 30 inches statewide this year for the first time since the Natural Resources Conservation Service began calculating the number in the 1930s. There are actually more than 40 inches at two of the three basins that feed the tributaries that flow into the Great Salt Lake.

Perry, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, explains that about every 12 or 13 years, there’s a big spike in precipitation — seemingly out of the blue. It happened in 2011 and 1997, as did this remarkable run between 1982 and 1984.

“It’s because of the circulation patterns in the ocean,” he says. “Most of the time we get that one big year and it only lasts a year. Occasionally we get two years off it.”

However, this year’s wintry rush could not have come at a better time for the Great Salt Lake, which fell to its lowest level on record for the second straight month in 2022. Readings at the US Geological Survey’s Saltair Boat Harbor site dipped to 4,188.7 feet by November.

As of Thursday morning, it’s now back up to 4,192.7 feet, gaining 4 feet since hitting that record low. However, the lake’s recent recovery is actually a mixture of natural and man-made factors.

The main reason, of course, is the record melting of the snowpack that flows into the Great Salt Lake. It helps that several water management agencies, such as the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, are dumping more water than usual into the lake to avoid flooding problems in the valleys.

(Fox 13 News) The level of the Great Salt Lake has risen so high that the water is once again reaching the north arm of the lake.

But also the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands raised their berm at the Union Pacific Railroad dam to divide the lake to control salinity in its southern arm and fill it faster. Now that the arm’s levels are beginning to exceed the height of the berm, Perry said the lake’s recovery is likely to slow somewhat as incoming water fills the entire lake rather than just one half of it in the coming weeks and months becomes.

“I still suspect we’ll melt another 2 to 2½ feet out of the snowpack so we’ll be up to about 4,195[feet]by the end of spring,” he said.

It’s a huge development, but it doesn’t change the lake’s long-term prospects, adds Perry, one of the lake’s leading researchers. This winter’s remarkable snowpack instead offers several years before the lake’s ecosystem may collapse unless drastic changes are made to the state’s water-using habits.

The lake’s long-term prospects

Dozens of researchers warned in a damning report released in January that the lake “as we know it will disappear in five years”. The team cited excessive water consumption as the main cause, as the lake has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its surface area since 1850.

Perry isn’t one of the report’s many authors, but he also believes many people misinterpreted this study when it was first published. He declares that yes, it would still be a Great Salt Lake in five years; However, if the water consumption trends continued unchanged, this would no longer be recognizable.

“It will be dead,” he said, noting that salinity was on the verge of killing Artemia by the time the report was published. “The salinity would be so high that the brine shrimp and brine flies would all be gone and the birds would all starve.”

How has this year’s record snowpack and spring runoff affected the future of the lake?

Salinity fell from 19% to about 16%, a high percentage but within the artemia’s tolerable range, Perry says. The raised berm likely saved the lake’s ecosystem from prematurely breaking up.

He also estimates that this year will likely add two years to the report’s findings based on the runoff that has already taken place and what is likely to come this year. Factoring in typical summer loss, he predicts the lake will be about 4,192.5 feet to 4,193 feet high by the end of the year, close to current levels.

“That caused the clock to go back five years,” he said. “This wonderful snowpack has given us about 2 to 2½ more years for our conservation efforts to actually kick in, allowing us to use less water and put more water into the lake.”

Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at BYU and one of the study’s researchers, said he agreed with Perry’s assessment, calling this year’s snowpack a “short-term windfall.”

The reason it isn’t longer is because the lake’s decline was so severe during the last drought that ravaged Utah. So even with the massive gains this year, the projected year-end level reflects the level seen in late 2020 and early 2021.

Additionally, both this year’s outlook and spring 2021 levels are well below May 1 levels over the past decade and the lake’s overall 33-year median level, according to data from the US Geological Survey.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two kayakers swim on the Great Salt Lake on Thursday, April 6, 2023.

And as the current drought continues to ease as a result of the record winter, the West remains in the grips of a mega-drought, a series of droughts over the past two decades. It could be another decade, Perry claims, based on studies of other mega-droughts in the past.

If the snow cover returns to normal next winter, which is entirely possible given the circulation pattern, drier conditions are likely to return in the following years, similar to those after 2011.

In short, that’s why researchers say the Great Salt Lake continues to struggle despite the fertile winter.

Preserve the lake, reduce consumption

That’s also why state and local politicians haven’t changed their messages on water use as warmer temperatures return.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall referenced Perry’s work when presenting her proposed fiscal year 2024 budget to the Salt Lake City City Council on Tuesday. Their plan calls for a new Great Salt Lake Shoreline Preservation Area in coordination with several groups, including the Audubon Society and the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The well-being and long-term viability of our namesake (are) still critical and urgent,” she said.

New water conservation efforts are also being made for the first time since the report was published. In addition to the new reserve, Mendenhall earlier this year asked the council to approve a plan to send about 13 billion gallons of reclaim water directly to the Great Salt Lake each year. When that begins is unclear.

Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox this week introduced a new statewide turfgrass buyback program that has the potential to reduce municipal water use on lawns. The state estimates that approximately 60% of all municipal water is used for outdoor irrigation.

At the same time, the Utah Legislature added $200 million to the state’s Agricultural Optimization Program, helping farmers and ranchers find more efficient ways to use their water. It is estimated that agricultural irrigation accounts for between 75% and 85% of all water use in Utah. The state’s water lease plan is also scheduled to start this year.

Those efforts, Perry says, have the potential to provide more water for the Great Salt Lake. He is part of the strike team that released another report in February that found that Utah residents use about 30% more water than normal runoff, which is a major reason for the lake’s decline, especially during the mega-drought.

The report also found that water optimization and water leasing programs, in which water rights holders temporarily lease their rights to allow water to flow into the lake, are the most efficient and viable ways to bring water into the lake, which is likely to exceed that 30 percent number reduced. But the future of the lake depends heavily on these programs and other water cuts taking effect and functioning.

By then, Utah will need more years of above-average snow cover to get water into the lake.

“Even if we have normal snow cover next year, if we use the same amount of water as before, the lake will shrink again next year,” he said. “Don’t let this one big year fool you. We are still in this dry season.”

Justin Scaccy

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