Question by Kurt in Salt Lake City, Utah 

This is a complicated question that requires a complicated answer. Bonnie Baxter, the director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster said, “we don’t know the answer yet.”

However, multiple saline lake systems around the world are currently drying. 

This means those who are fighting for Great Salt Lake aren’t alone. And previous saline lake restoration efforts can be used as a guide.  

Andrew Rupke, an industrial minerals geologist at the Utah Geological Survey, said: “The important thing is we strive to preserve the health of the lake.” 

Saline levels will continue to rise as the lake’s water levels shrink. This risks life at Great Salt Lake. 

Microbiolites, cyanobacteria, and brine shrimp do best when Great Salt Lake’s saline level is around 12%, according to Baxter. And they all play a critical role in Great Salt Lake’s food chain systems. In fact, the food cycle starts with the bottom-dwelling and free-floating microbes. 

Microbiolites and cyanobacteria provide nutrients for the brine shrimp and brine flies. Waterbirds and shorebirds at Great Salt Lake then eat the brine shrimp and brine flies. 

Great Salt Lake’s saline level is currently “a little above 15%,” Baxter said, “in our lab when we get to about 17%, there’s a big die-off.” 

This means that life within the lake could die if the saline level increases by under 2%. 

While researchers have other concerns about the lake dying (dust emissions and economic impacts), the salt content is most pressing because increased salinity would happen first and lead to the collapse of the food chain, University of Utah atmospheric sciences professor Kevin Perry told Great Salt Lake Collaborative partner KCPW.

“We’re going to end up with millions of birds dying and it’s going to be an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions,” Perry said.

Listen to him here:   

Rupke explained there isn’t much that can modify saline levels at the lake—short of adding more freshwater.

“The main thing we need to do is get as much water to the lake as we can because that’s really how the salinity at the lake gets lowered,” Rupke said. 

—Written and reported by McCaulee Blackburn