Today’s Great Salt Lake is a shallow, salty remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville that formed about 11,000 years ago. Three rivers flow into the lake – the Bear River, Weber River and Jordan River – but no water flows out of it, making it a “terminal” lake. Because it is shallow and salty, it loses about 2 million acre-feet of water through evaporation each year. Evaporation rates are highest during the hot summer months and lowest during the winter.
The Great Salt Lake supports a unique environment, ecology and economy. The lake reached new historic lows in 2021 and 2022, prompting action to protect it.
The Great Salt Lake hit a new historic low in November 2022, only covering about 800 square miles. At a historic average elevation of 4,200 feet, the lake covers approximately 1,700 miles and is approximately 75 miles long by 35 miles wide. At its record high in 1986 (4,211.65), the lake covered 3,300 square miles! Typically, the lake level fluctuates one to two feet annually, peaking during spring runoff and dropping to a seasonal low in October or November.
The 2023 record snowpack provided much-needed relief to the lake, which rose about 5.5 feet between November 2022 – July 2023. However, action is still needed to preserve the lake.
The bed of the Great Salt Lake is sovereign land entrusted to the state of Utah for long-term management and care. The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is the management authority for the state’s sovereign lands and manages the resource to promote the sustainability of the public trust resource. The division manages the lake bed under the public trust doctrine, balancing uses against navigation, fish and wildlife habitat, aquatic beauty, public recreation and water quality in the interest of public health, safety and welfare.
The lake and its wetlands provide a critical stopover where 10 million birds (338 species) rest and refuel during their annual migration. Free-roaming bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mule deer and many other animals reside on Antelope Island.
People enjoy a variety of recreational activities on and around the lake, including sailing or floating, wildlife watching, biking and hiking at Antelope Island State Park, or bird watching at one of the many wildlife management areas and sanctuaries in the surrounding area.
The lake is a rich source of magnesium, sulfate of potash, brine shrimp and more and contributes $1.9 billion to Utah’s economy each year (adjusted for inflation). It also contributes about 5-10% to Utah’s famous snow, which supports a robust ski industry.
Record-low levels have prompted unprecedented interest in the lake, including legislative attention and actions. Government agencies, academic institutions, non-profit organizations, industry representatives and the public are working together to safeguard the Great Salt Lake.
A drying Great Salt Lake has far-reaching consequences and could result in increased dust, reduced snow, elevated salinity, habitat loss, island bridges, more invasive plant growth and negative economic impacts to the state. Both short-term and long-term actions are underway to stabilize and protect this unique ecosystem.