Utah's Great Salt Lake shrinks, unleashes dangerous toxins

The average daily surface water elevation at Utah's Great Salt Lake hit a record low when it dropped to 4,190.1 feet, and is expected to continue dropping through October

The water level of Utah’s Great Salt Lake continues to drop, causing a ripple effect on the health of Utahns and on the local, national and worldwide economy.

As of July 3, the average daily surface water elevation hit a record low when it dropped to 4,190.1 feet, and is expected to continue dropping as agricultural needs will continue to use the lake’s water through October.


The lowest water elevation prior to this summer was 4,191.4 in October 1963.

Measurements have been recorded since 1847, showing an 11-foot decline of the lake over the years. The following graphic shows the lake’s decline over 20 years between Aug. 8, 2002 and Aug. 8, 2022.

This drop has affected several factors, from nearby residents’ quality of life to the nationwide economy.

Toxic dust pollution has increased over the past decade, said Laura Vernon, the Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

"Researchers are telling us that the increased particulate matter from the exposed lakebed is the greatest fear," she added. "So, just the more exposed lakebed that we have, the more dust is flying around."

This dust can carry metals and chemicals in the air, compromising the air quality of the approximately 2 million people living in close proximity to the lakebed.

In addition to air quality, the economy is also affected by the dropping water levels of Great Salt Lake.

"The minerals produced in the Great Salt Lake are of importance nationwide and worldwide," Vernon said. "Actually, 100% of the magnesium that is used in the United States comes from the Great Salt Lake."

She added that the lake also produces 40% of the world's brine shrimp. Brine shrimp are crucial in that they are used to feed baby fish and baby shrimp that are served in restaurants and sold in stores.

According to Vernon, the lake’s falling water level could be helped by years of heavy snow to replenish the Utah mountains. Snowmelt from the mountains in the spring then flows down to replenish the lake.


In the meantime, measures are being taken to help mitigate the lake’s falling water level.

Changes are being made to Utah water law and policy, with the state creating programs to help bring water to the lake.

These changes are also happening on the federal level, as the U.S. Senate passed Utah senator Mitt Romney’s bill called the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act on July 28. 

The law authorizes $10,000,000 to a program carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to monitor and assess water availability. It also authorizes a study on the feasibility of using technologies, such as pipelines to redirect water sources to the lake across state lines.

Vernon also mentioned that a water trust is being created, which will help in the acquisition and delivery of water to the lake. Agricultural optimization efforts are too being made, which will allow water to make it downstream to the lake.

Apart from these larger efforts, individual Utahns can make a difference.

"We also need to use the water that we do get more wisely," Vernon said. "We live in a desert, one of the driest states in the nation, and we need to use water accordingly."