Then, finally, with some legislative action and a big boost from record snow and rain, the water level began to rise. The marina on the southern tip of the lake opened up.
I grabbed the chance to take a boat ride out onto the lake. The water was calm and smooth and Fremont Island loomed large ahead. We were the only boat out there.
Ah, I thought, this is a lot like Kit Carson and John Fremont must have seen the island when they paddled up to it in 1843.
The boat operator told us some early history of the island. In 1859 two brothers, Henry and Daniel Miller, took 153 sheep out to the island and left them there. It seemed ideal – plenty of grass, adequate fresh water’ and no wild beasts. So, no need to leave a herder.
The brothers returned periodically to shear the sheep. They also built two huge vats, lit a fire of sagebrush under them, and boiled the lake water down to salt.
Business was good. Boatloads of salt were sold to the silver mines in Montana who needed it in their operations. The excess lambs were taken to market and sold.
By now the sheep, left alone on the island for long stretches of time, were becoming wild as deer. One roundup, some sheep were so determined not to get caught that they took off swimming away from the island. They were still going when they disappeared over the horizon.
But the story really took a turn when a judge from Salt Lake, Uriah Wenner, took advantage of the Desert Land Act intended to encourage irrigation and farming in the west. He filed a claim on the island and evicted the sheep. It was 1885, and Jacob Miller, now in charge of the Miller family sheep operation on the island was a polygamist “in hiding.” He didn’t dare go to court to challenge the claim.
As the last of the sheep were taken off the island, they were placed in the custody of an experienced herder. The herder was just beginning to cook his breakfast in his hut.
“You’d better watch these sheep,” he was warned.
“Don’t tell me how to herd sheep,” said the herder.
He finished his breakfast. When he came out of his hut, the sheep were gone.
The story ended, but the best was yet to come. The boat stopped and my husband and I slid into the water off the back of the boat.
Gleefully we bobbed around like corks. It was impossible to sink. I flipped on my back and stretched out. It would have been easy to doze off. Buoyancy at its best.
The current salinity of the Great Salt Lake is 16%. That’s just about halfway from the oceans at 3½ and the saltiest water on earth – the Dead Sea at 33%
The Great Salt Lake is our unique treasure. But it’s future is still at risk. Will we keep it or lose it?
I first met the Great Salt Lake in 1964 with two Central Michigan University college buddies on our way to Los Angeles. We heard you could float in its magical waters. Sure enough- it worked and we bobbed in its gentle waves oblivious to the many other virtues of this extraordinary water body. The Great Salt Lake’s Importance
This saltwater marvel is the largest wetland area in the American West. Its 400,000 acres of wetlands provide habitat for over 230 bird species traveling from the tip of South America, north to Canada’s Northwest Territories and as far west as Siberia. These wetlands and surrounding mudflats are vital habitat for 8-10 million individual migratory birds with many species gathering at the Lake in larger populations than anywhere else on the planet.
In 1991 the Great Salt Lake was declared a site of “hemispheric importance,” the highest level of designation given to a site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The Reserve conserves shorebird habitat through a network of key sites across the Americas. Salt Lake receives the largest percentage of the world’s population of migrating Eared Grebes, nearly one-third of Wilson’s Phalaropes, more than half of American Avocets, and 37 percent of Black-necked Stilts. The lake’s shoreline, playas and mudflats also support 21 percent of the North American breeding population of Snowy Plovers, a species identified as one of greatest conservation needs by Utah’s Wildlife Action Plan.
These shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. But their numbers are dropping quickly. Shorebirds are showing the most dramatic declines among all bird groups. Species that undertake hemispheric migrations rely on specific habitats and food sources to survive, but these resources are increasingly under threat from human disturbance including habitat loss and degradation, over-harvesting, increasing predation, and climate change. As humans have continued to alter the landscape, shorebird populations continue to drop, with accelerated declines in recent decades.
Of 52 shorebird species that regularly breed in North America, 90% are predicted to experience an increase in risk of extinction. This includes 28 species already considered at high risk, and 10 imperiled species that face even greater risk.
At the base of Salt Lake’s food chain are microbialites, underwater reef-like rock mounds created by millions of microbes. These structures and their microbial mats form the base of the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem, serving as a primary food source for brine shrimp and brine flies, which are the main food source for these aquatic birds. Falling water levels exposing the microbialites to air could trigger a collapse in the lake’s food chain according to a July study by the Utah Geological Survey.
So we humans aren’t the only one’s suffering from our disappearing Lake. Thank goodness we have awakened to this extraordinary resource found on our doorstep with many organizations and agencies attempting to save what remains for our health, wealth, and for the millions of threatened feathered friends that grace our skies, and our lives. Last May, Utah Governor Cox declared 2021 the year honoring shorebirds. We can do our part by taking action on conserving water and energy.
Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society and I’m wild about Utah and its magnificent great lake.
Written by Hall Crimmel & Dan Bedford, Filmed and Edited by Isaac Goeckeritz, iUtah EPSCor, Rachel Carsen Center Environment & Society,
Based on the book Desert Water; The Future of Utah’s Water Resources edited by Hall Crimmel and published by University of Utah Press, 2014
I first caught sight of the eight pelicans swimming in s straight line towards the waters edge, looking a lot like a tank division in in an old WWII movie I slammed on the brakes just in time to see them all dip their bills into the water, come up spilling water and cock their heads back And then, gulp! Fish slid down their throats.
Wow, I thought. These pelicans are working together to to drive the fish into the shallow water’s edge where they can easily scoop the up And then it got better. Fanning out, the pelicans regrouped in a circle Swimming towards the center, they tightened the noose. And bam! Dip, scoop, knock back some more fish
I was amazed at how soundless and seamless it all was and could have watched for hours, but I was on the one lane auto route at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the cars behind me were starting to honk their horns, so I reluctantly moved on.
As soon as I got home I plunged into research on this majestic bird, beginning with the bill. When the pelican dips its bill into the water, the lower portion expands into a flexible sac that allows the bird to to scoop up as much as 3 gallons of fish and water. When the pelican cocks back its head, the sac contracts, the water is expelled through a barely open bill, and the fish swallowed. The huge pelican bill, which at first glance looks like a formidable weapon, is actually an exquisitively designed fishing net.
Archeologists have found pelican skulls dating back 30 million years, so this unique bill has definitely passed the test of time.
Back at the refuge I was able to turn into a visitor pull out and pick up the rather stunning bit of information: these pelicans fly in from Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake, over the Promontory Mountains, daily to forage for fish. That’s a 30 mile trip each way!
Long before the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah, pelicans were building their nest on Gunnison Island. They were briefly disturbed when an artist, Albert Lambourne, tried to homestead for a year in 1850, and a guano mining company dropped off a crew – a Pole, a Russian, a Scot and an Englishman- to mine the bird poop. But the operation wasn’t profitable, and when it closed down, the pelicans reclaimed the island. Each March the birds fly in from as far away as Mexico, build their nests, and raise their chicks. The rookery is the largest in the US. In 2017 the pop was estimated to be as high as 20,000.
Back in Cache Valley in 2010, Jordan Falslev built a viewing platform near Benson Marina, The Pelican Perch, as his Eagle scout project. There used to be hundreds of pelicans out there on the water, but when I stopped by last week I didn’t see a single one. Numbers are way down now largely because the dropping water level in the Great Salt Lake have exposed a land bridge to Gunnison Island that allows predators to ravage the nesting site.
You can still catch sight of a pelican in flight in Cache Valley. (Their wingspan is 10 ft. Rudy Gobert, in comparison, has a wingspan of 7 ft 9 in.) But for my money, the best show in town is watching packs of pelicans hunt for fish at the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge.
There is a giant among us with a profound influence on our past, present, and future. My first encounter with this giant was both buoyant and delightful as I floated in the brine on a lovely summer day. But I was oblivious to the Great Salt Lake’s immense value as an environmental, cultural, and economic resource.
A Giant Among Us–The Great Salt Lake
Much of what follows is taken from a very recently released collaborative study titled “Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front” which was a collaborative effort from four institutions(Utah State University, Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake Community College, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.)
A 2012 analysis by Bioeconomics estimated the economic value of the lake at $1.32 billion per year for mineral extraction, brine shrimp cyst production, and recreation. The abundant food and wetlands of the lake attract 3 million shorebirds, as many as 1.7 million eared grebes, and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Because of this, it has been designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. Due to its enormous surface area, it produces the “lake affect” which enhances our snow pack by an estimated 8%, a significant amount for both skiers and our available water. But our giant is shrinking.
Since the arrival of 19th Century pioneers water diversions for irrigation have decreased its elevation by 11 feet exposing much of the lake bed. Natural fluctuations in rainfall and river flow cause the lake level to rise and fall, but there has been no significant long‐term change in precipitation and water supply from the main tributaries since their coming in 1847.
To significantly reduce water use, a balanced conservation ethic needs to consider all uses, including agriculture, which consumes 63 percent of the water in the Great Salt Lake Basin. There are no water rights to protect our Great Lake, so water development currently focuses solely on whether there is water upstream to divert. If future water projects reduce the supply of water to the lake, (such as the Bear River Development Project, its level will (most likely) continue to drop.
We must look beyond the next few decades and decide how we value the lake for future generations. Lower lake levels will increase dust pollution and related human health impacts, and reduce industrial and environmental function of Great Salt Lake. We must be willing to make decisions now that preserve Great Salt Lake’s benefits and mitigate its negative impacts into the coming centuries.
John Muir, one of my favorite early American naturalists would most certainly agree with me. From his baptismal plunge into the Great Salt Lake. “I found myself undressed as someone else had taken me in hand and got myself into right lusty relationship with the brave old lake. I was conscious only of a joyous exhilaration….”
And where else could John and I have such a wonderfully buoyant experience?