It has lost nearly 95% of its volume in the past two decades, upending what was once a thriving resort economy, a healthy brine shrimp population, crucial wildlife and bird habitat, and critical mineral extraction industries.
The miles of stark, exposed lakebed threaten the millions of people who live nearby due to wind-whipped dust settling in their lungs.
It’s Lake Urmia, nearly 6,900 miles away from the Great Salt Lake. But the two are now connected as efforts to save this lake deliver unique lessons as Utah grapples with a way to preserve and save its salty landmark from a similar fate.
Researchers from Utah and Iran teamed up to determine how these complex saline lakes can overcome the rapid desiccation that has put them in a chokehold, threatening a way of life, an indelible identity.
In Utah, the drying up of Great Salt Lake is a more than $1.3 billion problem for the state, which can boast of having the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi and the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere.
Reaching a tipping point
Iran’s dilemma is a shared misery playing out in saline lakes around the globe, with many starting to shrink into nothingness.
“We’re at the tipping point,” said assistant professor and lead study author Somayeh Sima, of Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran. “Every single step matters. We have to take action now.”
Sima’s work will be used to update Iran’s $1 billion Lake Urmia Restoration Program.
Three years ago, she traveled to Utah on a scholarship from the Salt Lake City-based Semnani Family Foundation to collaborate with Utah State University’s water resources professor David Rosenberg, who is an expert in integrated water management and water conservation in western U.S. river basins, including rivers that feed the Great Salt Lake.
Taking 40 years of data derived from eight subject areas impacting the lake, the team released its findings this spring in the Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies.
One of the key takeaways from the study revealed that setting a goal for an ideal lake level when it comes to restoration is unlikely to solve all the problems facing Lake Urmia.
“We can’t say that restoring the lake to some magic number will improve the overall situation,” Rosenberg said. “Instead, we need to consider how the lake’s ecosystem services are interconnected and how a varying lake level will impact those systems over time.”
Those eight areas of impacts playing out in Iran for Lake Urmia are: salinity, brine shrimp, flamingos, islands’ connection to each other, islands’ connection to the shore (land bridges), lakebed dust, magnesium, and finally, ecotourism.
Each of these challenges, researchers found, will not be fixed by a one-size-fits-all approach.
“We have to embrace lake level variability and focus our restoration efforts where it makes sense,” Sima said. “Restoration is not an easy task. It is everyone’s responsibility, and we’ll need public support to make meaningful change.”
The Great Salt Lake, like its sister lake in Iran, has been the focus of intense studies over the years as groups of diverse interests band together to arrive at a solution. One such research effort concluded the lake has been reduced in size by 48% and its levels diminished by 11 feet since pioneers first arrived in Utah in 1847.
Depleted salt lakes
Continued diversions from its main tributaries threaten to drop the lake even lower, and those drought-challenged rivers will not deliver any sense of hope — especially this year as Utah experiences record low runoff from the mountain snowpack.
Both lakes support critical habitat for a wide variety of bird species, many that rely on brine shrimp for food.
At Lake Urmia, brine shrimp there once supported between 40,000 and 80,000 pairs of breeding greater flamingos and more than 200 species of birds.
Similar challenges are playing out at California’s shrinking Salton Sea, which is exposing area residents to unhealthy levels of dust pollution and creating a public health crisis.
In a virtual forum earlier this week hosted by several organizations that include the Sierra Club and Audubon, the challenges at the Salton Sea were detailed, with many participants acknowledging lack of progress over the years to confront the problem head-on.
“I am the first to say we are coming from behind,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary of natural resources.
Crowfoot and others did say a 10-year action plan is reason for hope, and a way to get many of the diverse players on board in an effort to restore the lake.
While those restoration efforts at Lake Urmia have been hyper-focused on reaching one target level for lake elevation, researchers concluded lack of data and inconsistent monitoring demonstrate the community should rethink that approach.
Instead, more variability and flexibility should be built into restoration efforts through a process that includes more modeling and additional research that specifically targets salinity, lake evaporation, illegal use of the water and agricultural return flows.
Rosenberg said the research on Lake Urmia’s struggles provides insight for helping the Great Salt Lake, and the need to be dynamic in management approaches.
“I think the main thing that we really learned and certainly me in particular is that managing salt lakes are quite complex things,” he said, adding there are natural connections in play in so many sectors.
“These are complex systems and problems that are both natural and human,” he said.