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What biologists see from the shores of the drying Great Salt Lake

Scientists Carly Biedul, Bonnie Baxter and Heidi Hoven look for migratory birds on the eerily dry south shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
Scientists Carly Biedul, Bonnie Baxter and Heidi Hoven look for migratory birds on the eerily dry south shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Drive west of this sprawling high desert city, past its newly built international airport, through a series of locked gates into the Audubon's Gillmor Sanctuary and it's like entering another world.

Or maybe better put, an other worldly landscape: the vast, and drying wetlands along the Great Salt Lake, the largest saline lake left in the western hemisphere, some fifty miles long and thirty wide.

"It's quite an adventure to get out here," says Carly Biedul, a wildlife biologist at nearby Westminster University. She's part of a team of scientists who have been tracking the lake's decline amid the West's record megadrought made worse by climate change. They've been conducting weekly trips to various sampling and study sites for the last several years at the remote lake that only recently started making international headlines due to its sharp decline.

Even since its water levels peaked in the 1980s, the Great Salt Lake has always had this mysterious vibe. It's shallow and boggy. It can stink, especially in the heat of summer.

But zero in right here at this private sanctuary - where steady water still flows in due to a complex web of agreements - and it soon becomes clear how alive this ecosystem can be and how hugely important of a stopover it is for migratory birds.

Wetlands ecologist Heidi Hoven looks for shorebirds at the Gillmor Sanctuary, which she helps manage.
/ Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
/
Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
Wetlands ecologist Heidi Hoven looks for shorebirds at the Gillmor Sanctuary, which she helps manage.
Water diversions by farmers and Utah's booming population are seen as some of the biggest culprits behind the Great Salt Lake's decline.
/ Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
/
Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
Water diversions by farmers and Utah's booming population are seen as some of the biggest culprits behind the Great Salt Lake's decline.

Despite recent moisture, the lake is still shrinking

2023 brought record snow to Utah, and a healthy spillover of runoff into the imperiled lake. Scientists warn the lake has already shrunk nearly in half from its historical average.

"It's because of so many years of drought and climate change and water diversions, and we can't keep going like that," says Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute.

But she says there's still time to reverse its decline. The last two years has bought the state some time. Researchers here are already detecting sharp declines in shorebird populations such as burrowing owls and snowy plovers. As the lake and its wetlands dry, the brine shrimp the birds feed on are dying out.

"For these birds that queue into these saline habitats, there are fewer places for them to go," says Heidi Hoven, a wetlands ecologist who helps manage the Gillmor. "All the saline lakes here in the West, and many in the world, are experiencing this loss of water and in essence that relates to a loss in habitat."

Left: the Great Salt Lake is an important stopover for scores of migratory shorebirds. Right: as the lake dries, predators like coyotes are appearing in areas that used to be underwater.
/ Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
/
Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
Left: the Great Salt Lake is an important stopover for scores of migratory shorebirds. Right: as the lake dries, predators like coyotes are appearing in areas that used to be underwater.

There are plenty of culprits behind the lake drying up

Scientists say the West is believed to be as dry as it's been in 1200 years. The megadrought made worse by climate change has been contributing to the Great Salt Lake's decline. But agriculture usually bears the bulk of the blame. Upstream water diversions for expanding alfalfa farms and dairies has meant less and less flows into the lake. Utah's population is also booming. Hoven says development is now running right up to the sanctuary.

"You can actually see it over your shoulder," she gestures. "It's this advancement of large, distribution warehouses that are within a mile from the sanctuary now where it used to be open land."

A short, bumpy ride later along a rutted out dirt track, Hoven pulls to a stop at a favorite vista. The setting sun is casting an eerie orange glow over the distant mountains that ring the dry lake bed. It stretches for miles with just a few pools of water here or there.

Scientists Heidi Hoven, Senior Manager at the Gillmor Sanctuary and Audubon Rockies and Bonnie Baxter, Director at The Great Salt Lake Institute, look for small flies at a bird sanctuary where many species of birds are affected by the recession of The Great Salt Lake.
/ Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
/
Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
Scientists Heidi Hoven, Senior Manager at the Gillmor Sanctuary and Audubon Rockies and Bonnie Baxter, Director at The Great Salt Lake Institute, look for small flies at a bird sanctuary where many species of birds are affected by the recession of The Great Salt Lake.
Wetlands ecologist Heidi Hoven looks for small flies at a bird sanctuary where many species are in decline due to the alarming drying of the Great Salt Lake.
/ Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
/
Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
Wetlands ecologist Heidi Hoven looks for small flies at a bird sanctuary where many species are in decline due to the alarming drying of the Great Salt Lake.

It's beautiful but also eerie, even for the trained eye of wildlife biologists like Biedul, who make weekly research trips to the lake.

"Otherworldly is a great word," she says. "It's crazy. We're at Great Salt Lake right now but there's no water. The other places where I go and sample there's water there at least. But here we're still at the lake and it's dry."

Hoven chimes in, solemnly.

"It's just so shocking, and you know, it's a shock to me every time I see it," she says. "But to see someone view it for the first time. You can really see them taking it in. You never thought you could see this dryness."

The state is being galvanized into action

But all this shock and alarm, the scientists say, may be good. It's pressuring state leaders into action. Utah Governor Spencer Cox has pledged the lake won't dry up on his watch. The state legislature has put upwards of a billion dollars lately into water conservation programs, most geared to farmers.

"For generations the lake was seen as kind of this dead thing that just happens to be there and will always be there," Cox told NPR recently. "And now that people are realizing there's a potential that it might not always be here, that's gotten people's attention in a positive way."

Wildlife biologist Carly Biedul of the Great Salt Lake Institute closes the last of many gates to the protected Gillmor Sanctuary along the south shores of the Great Salt Lake.
/ Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
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Lindsay D'Addato for NPR
Wildlife biologist Carly Biedul of the Great Salt Lake Institute closes the last of many gates to the protected Gillmor Sanctuary along the south shores of the Great Salt Lake.

Everything from lake effect snow for the lucrative ski industry, to mining, to air quality depends on the lake's survival. Recent publicity around the crisis has raised public awareness but also started to bring more money which could lead to more comprehensive research that could inform everything from strategic action plans to save the lake to just understanding how the remaining migratory birds are coping.

Heidi Hoven, the wetlands ecologist, sees the shorebirds as a key indicator species.

"We have so much more to understand about what their needs are," she says. "In these changing times, it's really highlighting the need to understand these things quickly."

The scientists say the last two winters may have bought Utah a little time, but no one in the West is counting on another good snow year next year.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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