SALT LAKE CITY — Even in a city and county named for the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere is both misunderstood and underappreciated by Utahns.
“I was taught to love to hate the Great Salt Lake. We never went there, ever,” she said.
Bonnie Baxter saw the lake with fresh eyes when she moved to Utah 23 years ago to teach biology at Westminster College.
“I saw the lake as an outsider and I just thought it was the most intriguing place I’d ever been. Every time you go, it’s different. Every time, you see something new,” she said.
Earlier this year, rare salt formations called mirabilite mounds were discovered on the lake’s shoreline.
“We planned a big field trip and we went out and we sampled them and we’re now processing the biology that’s living in those mirabilite mounds to try to understand that,” she said.
For Baxter, who earned her doctorate degree in genetics and microbiology, the Great Salt Lake is “an incredible research model, an incredible teaching tool, but also just so remarkably unique and special.”
The Great Salt Lake is also endangered due to climate change, increasing diversion of water that flows into the lake and Utah’s sub-optimal water conservation practices, she said.
Baxter and Butler’s recently published book, “Great Salt Lake Biology: A Terminal Lake in a Time of Change,” explains that the lake has shrunk dramatically in recent years, which endangers animals that live in its waters, on its shores and island.
The book includes chapters and illustrations by Westminster College professors and students who are now alumni.
Baxter and Butler wrote a chapter on the shrinking lake’s impact to climate change in the local region, the first examination of its kind.
“As the lake loses water, the shorelines are more exposed. This dust — laden with toxins humans put there — becomes airborne, affecting air quality,” said Baxter in a prepared statement.
“But the dust also lands on the snow of our mountains, which absorbs the heat of the sun and melts it more quickly, affecting both the ski industry and the recharge of our water supply.”
“Great Salt Lake is a huge deal,” said Butler. “So many species rely on this water body, and it impacts over a billion dollars in Utah’s economy.”
Their chapter includes this ominous warning: “The current status of the Great Salt Lake, with no water rights of its own and increasing pressures for water use upstream, does not bode well for the survival of this critical ecosystem given climate change predictions for the southwestern United States.”
Butler has worked on and studied the lake in several different capacities since 1999, first working for Utah State University studying eared grebes, which are small waterbirds.
Eared grebes come to the lake in the late summer to feed on brine shrimp. They come to Utah because of the food source but also because saline lakes and other habitats are disappearing, she said.
“Ninety-five percent of their population comes here at some point in their life. That’s not a unique story. That’s a pretty common story among a lot of these birds,” Butler said.
While employed by USU, Butler worked under a contract with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to quantify how much brine shrimp eared grebes eat daily to help ensure brine shrimp harvesters didn’t remove too much of the food source.
“I think there’s a really neat story there and that the state of Utah manages the brine shrimp harvest so well. They’ve actually optimized how many brine shrimp are in the lake,” Butler said.
Butler also worked as a biologist for a brine shrimp harvest company before joining the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project and then the institute at Westminster.
“I found a love for Great Salt Lake in a relationship with it. My experience isn’t just like those times where it was buggy and I came home and I itched for two weeks. There were there were all these other times in between that sparked my wonder and curiosity and captured my imagination,” she said.
Now she and Baxter have collaborated on a book they hope that academics, students and researcher will use to better understand the complexity of the resource and the implications of drought, water diversion and climate change.
“Essentially, humans get to decide the fate of Great Salt Lake, and we should be treating it like that. We should be talking about that with our legislators. This isn’t a game. Scientists are really talking about these words like ‘tipping points’ and that is really scary. People should know about it,” Butler said.
The threat is profound, Baxter said.
“The state commissioned a study that did some modeling and it shows in this next 10-year period, if we do nothing, the lake level will go down 11 feet. That that’s phenomenal. I mean, that’s a phenomenal decrease for a shallow lake like this,” Baxter said.
According to Utah Geological Survey, the lake has a maximum depth of 33 feet.
“Great Salt Lake Biology: A Terminal Lake in a Time of Change” was published as part of the internationally respected Springer Nature series. Baxter and Butler were paid to produce it but receive no royalties when copies are sold.
It is a forward-looking resource for students and scholars, Butler said, but it is also a call to action for Utahns and policymakers.
“The biggest threat to the lake is water. It takes every person to conserve water and advocate for smart water laws,” Butler said.