Story and photos by BROOKE WILLIAMS
As Utah emerges from another dry winter, the snowpacks are at a fraction of where they should be. This raises concerns for Utah that go beyond yearly water supply.
Weber Basin Water Chief Operating Officer Darren Hess says “every day that we don’t receive snow we get further and further behind the normal years.”
The primary source of Utah’s water supply comes from the snowpack runoff, which is expected to shrink as it replenishes the lack of soil moisture from the recent years of drought.
Hess said in a Zoom interview that he anticipates water restrictions to be in place this summer. He emphasizes that people should stay educated on how to water their yards because they “don’t realize how much water is used when they run their sprinkler system.”
He estimates that on average 3,500 gallons of water are used each sprinkler cycle, accounting for up to six weeks of household water use.
Paul Brooks is director of the Hydrology and Water Resources Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Utah. “Even if there aren’t any restrictions active,” he said, “people should think about how they are using their water.”
The water saved from one sprinkler cycle could go toward other concerns posed by the lack of snowfall, like the agriculture industry, economy, and even the future of local ecosystems.
Conservation includes little things like turning off the water while brushing teeth. Brooks said these efforts can really add up and help preserve our drinking water supply.
“The more water we use the less goes to the Great Salt Lake. It’s about 10 feet lower than its long-term historical average right now,” Brooks said.
The lake not only provides a home for brine shrimp and a food source for millions of migratory birds, it also acts as an air purifier to the surrounding Salt Lake Valley.
Great Salt Lake Institute Coordinator Jaimi Butler has studied the Great Salt Lake since 1999. She compares it to a California salt lake, Lake Owens, which was dried up by water use in the growing days of Los Angeles.
“When the lake dried up it essentially turned into a ghost town because the dust was pretty inhabitable. It’s not just dust, it’s salt and particles and stuff that we don’t want in our lungs,” Butler said in a Zoom interview.
Lake Owens’ bed was covered with 2 inches of gravel to prevent dust from blowing, and has since cost over $2 billion in Los Angeles tax revenue in an ongoing effort to reclaim the lake. Butler puts this in perspective, stating that while Lake Owens’ bed covers 110 square miles, the Great Salt Lake has a much bigger area with 1,700 square miles of lake bed.
She fears the impact and complications the lake could face after repeated years of drought and overuse of water. Utah’s culturally historic lake is at serious risk of being dried up, which Butler expresses goes beyond air quality. The local economy and wildlife depend on the lake, and she said it’s impossible to truly predict and see the future of Utah with a dried up lake.
“It’s worth over $1.3 billion every year, it’s over 600 jobs that contribute to the local economy,” she said.
As for the hundreds of bird species that visit the lake each year, this could have a serious impact on their migration and survival, Butler said, as the Great Salt Lake is one of their only places to go.
“It’s this very incredible place that people come from all over the world to study and watch our birds,” Butler said. “There’s not other places for the birds to go. This is one of those last places, so any change in the ecosystem is gonna affect the entire system.”
Jaimi Butler studies with Sarah Null, a professor at Utah State University, who found that streamflow and precipitation, while highly variable, are not showing any overall long-term change. In her Salty Seminar, Null says the suffering state of the lake is due to humans’ overuse of water.
While agriculture accounts for 63% of water use in Utah, compared to 11% municipal and industrial, much of that water used for agriculture disperses back into rivers going straight to the Great Salt Lake.
The lake becomes more saline as less water is saved for it because the only way water leaves the lake is by evaporation, and the only way it receives water is from what residents do not use. This makes human impact on the lake’s health much bigger than it seems on the surface, Null said, because the water never makes its way to the lake.
“Trying to understand all the crazy nuances of how the system works is what it’s going to take to save the lake,” Butler said.
Utah experts, including Butler, Brooks from the U, and Weber Basin Water COO Hess, promote programs like Slow The Flow and use of resource websites like SnoTel.
These programs provide a simple way to educate people about what they can do to help, which ultimately comes down to water conservation.
“It’s incredibly important that we use it as efficiently and thoughtfully as we can,” Brooks said. “It’s essential to everything that we value yet we take it for granted.”