The Great Salt Lake Mystery

Researchers scramble to understand one of the West's most neglected ecosystems

  • SALTY PLUNGE: American flags fly atop the refinishedSaltair pavilion as swimmers float in their modern tanks, circalate-1920s. Suits and towels could be rented for 10 cents apop.

    Photo courtesy Utah Historical Society
  • FISHING THE DESERT: Mark Jensen stands on one of hisbrine-shrimping boats at his warehouse in Salt Lake City

    Fred Hayes
  • Brine shrimp, known as "Sea-Monkeys" to kids who couldonce order them from comic book

    John George photo courtesy FRIENDS of Great SaltLake
  • LAKE WATCH: Lynn de Freitas, president of the conservationgroup FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, on the Great Salt Lakeshoreline

    Fred Hayes
  • BIRDLAND: More than 255 species of birds spend part of theyear at the Great Salt Lake. A golden eagle recovers from an injuryat the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City.

    Fred Hayes
  • Burrowing owls

    Don Paul, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
  • Wilson's phalaropes

    Don Paul, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
  • Avocets in flight

    Don Paul, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
  • SALTY BOUNTY: Piles of mineral salt at the AKZO SaltCompany on the south shore of Great Salt Lake

    Bruce Thompson photo, courtesy FRIENDS of Great SaltLake

Something's fishy about the offices of Great Lake Artemia. It hits you the moment you step in the door of the company's nondescript building on Salt Lake City's industrial north side: The air smells vaguely of the ocean. An employee repairs a rubber pontoon while others clean two large, circular dryers. The floor is scattered with canvas bags filled with what looks like wet sand. More sacks are stored in a walk-in cooler nearby. In the lot behind the building sit eight shallow-draft fishing boats.

A thousand miles from here, on a wharf in Seattle or San Francisco, this scene wouldn't warrant a second look. But here, in the middle of the Great Basin, it's perplexing.

Owner Mark Jensen's explanation is as odd as his location. Those canvas bags aren't filled with wet sand, but with thousands of pounds of microscopic eggs. The eggs come from the only creatures that can survive in the brutal environment of Great Salt Lake, which lies, purple-gray, on the western fringe of this desert city. They're the eggs of brine shrimp, half-inch long invertebrates that look like a cross between a scorpion and a cocktail shrimp. Artemia is their Latin name.

In the front office, Jensen places a petri dish filled with eggs under a microscope. Even through this lens, they look like tiny pencil dots. They're so small it would take 250,000 to fill a teaspoon. But they're big business for Jensen and for 31 other Great Salt Lake brine-shrimp companies, which harvest them by the billions and ship them to Asia, where aquaculture farmers hatch them out and feed the brine shrimp to prawns.

In the last decade, Utah's brine-shrimp industry has attracted colorful characters from around the world to a game that is as competitive and high-stakes as any ocean fishery. Jensen, for his part, spent more than 20 years as a Grand Canyon raft guide before becoming a shrimp harvester in the 1980s. "It was something I could do in the winter that involved boats," he says.

These days, Jensen's crew harvests hundreds of thousands of pounds of brine-shrimp eggs each winter in a mad dash, round-the-clock flurry. Most of his employees are Grand Canyon guides: "They're not afraid of big water - wind and waves, winter storms," he says. "The smart mariner gets off the water before that stuff hits."

The brine-shrimp industry has done more than provide its 200 or so employees a way to make a living on the water. It has also helped put Great Salt Lake - one of the West's least understood ecosystems - under the microscope.

Utahns have long regarded Great Salt Lake with a shrug. You can't blame them. In the middle of some of the West's more surreal and lonely desert, a very salty lake nearly the size of the Grand Canyon doesn't exactly invite intimacy. You can't walk out to the water's edge without slogging through a moat of muck. In warm months, it swarms with brine flies and can stink like rotting eggs. Unless it's duck hunting season, people generally steer clear.

When the lake hasn't been ignored, it's been abused. Agricultural and government agencies have dammed and sucked water from the three main rivers feeding the lake. Suburbs and industry have crept to the edge of the lake's wetland fringe, spilling millions of pounds of pollutants into the water every year. Mineral companies have constructed elaborate dike systems and evaporation ponds to extract vast reserves of minerals, including magnesium and sodium chloride.

But now, Great Salt Lake is finally getting some respect. In the last decade, local and national environmental groups have taken new interest. An international coalition of public and private organizations has designated the lake a Hemispheric Shore Bird Reserve.

The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival draws thousands of people every May to celebrate the arrival of an estimated 5 million migratory birds that stop here each year.

Perhaps most significantly, the state of Utah is conducting the first ever long-term study of the lake's ecosystem, funded entirely by the brine-shrimp industry. Researchers are discovering that this inland sea - Salt Lake City's neglected namesake - is far more complex and vulnerable than previously thought.

But the Wasatch Front is undergoing a wave of unprecedented growth, and some worry that all the attention is coming too late.

"The data that's available is very shallow. As a result, we're making very major decisions based on a very lean offering of research," says Lynn de Freitas, president of the conservation group FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. "It's promiscuous behavior. It's not safe sex in my book."

The West's "liquid lie"

The late historian Dale Morgan called Great Salt Lake a lake of paradoxes. "In a country where water is life itself and land has little value without it, Great Salt Lake is an ironical joke of nature - water that is itself more desert than a desert."

Writer Terry Tempest Williams calls it "the liquid lie of the West."

It wasn't always so. During the last glacial era, 15,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville, Great Salt Lake's freshwater predecessor, covered 20,000 square miles of western Utah and parts of Nevada and Idaho, an area nearly the size of Lake Michigan. About 14,000 years ago, an ice dam gave way at Red Rock Pass in southern Idaho. The resulting torrent crashed down the Portneuf River past present-day Pocatello, then roared downstream across the Snake River Plain, carrying boulders the size of cars. Geologists say it was the second-largest flood known to have occurred in the world. Within a year, the lake dropped 400 feet.

By 8,000 years ago, the lake looked a lot like it does today: a shallow pool in the desert, fed by three rivers. The Bear and Weber rivers tumbled down from the Wasatch and Uinta mountains. The Jordan River linked Great Salt Lake to its freshwater sister, Utah Lake, to the south. The lake got its famous salinity because it has no outlet. Like other terminal lakes in the Great Basin (HCN, 9/13/99: Troubled Oasis) it is the equivalent of an enormous bathtub without a drain; water that flows in can only evaporate, leaving dissolved minerals behind.

Native Americans and early explorers hunted ducks and geese and trapped beaver and mink in the lake's freshwater marshes. Mormon pioneers, who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, hunted on the lake's fringes and extracted salt from the water; otherwise, they ignored it. They turned to the region's rivers to water crops and create cities. Ever since, the driving mission of state and local water policies has been to capture as much water as possible before it reaches the lake, where it becomes undrinkable and unusable.

Great Salt Lake has had a few moments in the limelight. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, resorts popped up along its southern shore, attracting people from around the world with the chance to swim in water so salty they could float like corks. The grandest of these resorts was Saltair, built in 1893 by the Mormon Church. The resort, touted as the "Coney Island of the West," saw its height in the Roaring '20s, and featured the world's largest dance floor, a roller coaster, touring Vaudeville companies, bullfights and hot-air balloons.

But Saltair was subject to the lake's infamous ups and downs. In 1925, the resort burned to the ground. It was rebuilt only to be marooned as the lake level dropped and the water receded. It burned a second time in 1970, and was rebuilt again more than a decade later. This time it was flooded during a four-year wet period in the mid-1980s.

It was then that Great Salt Lake forced its way, literally for some, into Utah's living rooms. It rose 12 feet, spreading out across the flat valley around it, flooding 600,000 acres. The lake swamped suburbs, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, and threatened Salt Lake International Airport and two interstate highways.

Then-Governor Norm Bangerter's solution was highly controversial: pump lake water over the Newfoundland Mountains and into the West Desert. Taxpayers footed the $55 million bill only to watch the weather turn to drought. After two years of operation, the state shut down the pumps, and "Lake Bangerter," as the West Desert evaporation ponds became known, dried up. The pumps now sit unused.

All you can eat seafood buffet

While ever-fluctuating Great Salt Lake is little more than a nuisance to some humans, it's a bonanza for birds, says biologist Don Paul, sitting in a converted closet he uses as an office at the Antelope Island State Park Visitor's Center. After 33 years with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), Paul is one of the top experts on the more than 255 species of birds that spend part of the year here. Great Salt Lake is "probably the single most important water bird habitat in the inland West," he says.

Paul's crammed office is stacked high with toilet paper, paper towels and plastic soap dispensers for the visitor center's public restrooms. But at one point, he nods toward the room's only window, which overlooks the lake, and says without irony, "Isn't this a great office?"

Only a fellow biologist - or a birder - would agree. Because Great Salt Lake is one of the few reliable bodies of water in the Great Basin, it offers a critical stopping point for waterfowl and shorebirds migrating between nesting grounds in the north and winter habitat down south. Each spring and fall, birds gorge themselves on brine flies and brine shrimp. On the avian equivalent of Highway 50, it's a pit stop with an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.

The numbers are stunning. In the average year, says Paul, Great Salt Lake sees over 800,000 Wilson's phalaropes, the second largest population in the world; 20,000 white pelicans; over 1,000 wintering bald eagles; the world's largest populations of California gulls and cinnamon teals; 60,000 tundra swans; over 1 million eared grebes; and the entire Intermountain West population of white-faced ibis.

Paul uses the eared grebe, which starts arriving from Canada in August, as an example of the lake's importance to birds. With long slender necks and stubby beaks, eared grebes are designed more for swimming than flying. Once they test the water for food, they start to molt, or shed their feathers, becoming flightless for several weeks before leaving for the Sea of Cortez. While they're at Great Salt Lake, however, they devour 15,000 brine shrimp a day, more than doubling their weight.

Wilson's phalaropes, which nest in the pothole country of the Northern Plains, are another example. Sandpiper relatives with long, needle-like bills and streaks of cinnamon down their silver backs, Wilson's phalaropes come to Great Salt Lake in the summer to molt and feast furiously on brine flies. The flies are fuel for a long fall journey: In early August, they fly almost non-stop to wintering grounds in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru.

Great Salt Lake's waterfowl have inspired much of the conservation work here over the past century. In the early 1900s, duck and goose hunters realized that growing water use by farmers and settlers was draining the lake's wetlands. Duck clubs sprang up to preserve - and develop - marshes at the lake's edges. Many of these duck clubs survive today. Some offer the pampered hunting experience (your annual membership dues could run as high as $75,000, but the staff will pluck, clean and even prepare your quarry a l'orange). Others offer the rough and stubbly (it costs just $150 to be a member, but you'll sleep in a tent and may even get your feet wet).

Great Salt Lake has also been on the forefront of public hunting opportunities. The Public Shooting Grounds, opened in 1923, may be the first marshes built for the use of the average-Joe hunter. And in 1928, Congress established the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on the lake's eastern shore. It was one of the first wildlife refuges in the country, and is now perhaps best known as the setting for Terry Tempest Williams' book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

Today, much of Great Salt Lake's 400,000-acre fringe of wetlands is protected under some form of federal, state, private or non-profit control. These wetlands are the hatching grounds for 500,000 to 750,000 ducks each year, according to the DWR. But, say conservationists, many of these wetlands are deepened and "enhanced" for waterfowl at the expense of shorebirds, which forage in mudflats or salt playas.

"The bottom line is I'm glad (the duckclubs are) there," says Wayne Martinson, Utah wetlands coordinator for the National Audubon Society, "and I hope they can continue, because I worry what would be there if they weren't."

A rush for "black gold"

While much has been done to protect Great Salt Lake's halo of wetlands, little would be known about the lake itself it weren't for the brine-shrimp harvesters. And to understand the harvesters, it helps to know a little more about the shrimp.

Some may know brine shrimp as "Sea-Monkeys"; back in the 1970s and '80s, brine shrimp were sold to kids through ads in the back of comic books and magazines - and today they're hocked online. They look nothing like the grinning sea people in the ads, but they're perfect for mail order: Their winter eggs, or cysts, go dormant for several months, so they can survive long-distance shipping. "Just add water," and they'll hatch.

It's this quality that makes the brine shrimp industry possible - this, and the fact that Great Salt Lake brine shrimp are the best, most nutritious food for cocktail shrimp, or prawns. Asian prawn farmers realized this 13 years ago, and in short order, their demand sparked a rush on the lake's "black gold."

During the 1986-87 season, four companies harvested a little less than 1.9 million pounds of biomass, a messy mix of brine shrimp eggs and flotsam and jetsam. Within five years, there were 11 companies operating 26 boats that pulled 13.5 million pounds from the lake. By 1995, 21 companies held 63 permits, with more wanting in on the action.

There was now fierce competition for the long streaks of salmon-colored eggs that look like oil slicks on the surface of the lake. Harvesters started using spotter planes to find them. The pilots radioed down to boat captains, who raced across the lake, surrounding the eggs with "containment booms" developed for cleaning oil spills before pumping them on board in a kind of water and egg slurry.

In the early days of the brine shrimp boom, harvesters and state managers believed it was impossible to over-harvest brine shrimp eggs. But the influx of fishermen, many of whom had watched other fisheries crash from over-fishing, brought a new environmental ethic to the lake. A group of them formed the Utah Artemia Association.

Getting such a competitive crowd to talk to one another was tough at first, says Mark Jensen with Great Lake Artemia. "It was like a bunch of cowboys coming together for their first meeting," he says. "Guys that used to give each other the one-finger salute suddenly had to sit down at the table together." Harvesters pushed the DWR slowly, and in some cases grudgingly, for more oversight.

The agency eventually responded in 1996 by capping the number of permits at 79 and the number of companies at 32. DWR also started shutting down the harvest when egg density dropped to a certain point to keep shrimp populations healthy. But despite the closer regulation, the brine-shrimp harvest went through a series of roller-coaster fluctuations. In 1999, DWR virtually cancelled the harvest after a two-year decline. Some scientists warned that the ecosystem was seriously out of whack.

The truth was that no one really knew what the lake's natural cycles looked like. To better understand the dynamics that drive the lake and its shrimp, harvesters had agreed in the early 1990s to steep increases in the cost of permits - from $3,000 to $10,000 - to fund a research program. But it wasn't until 1996 that the DWR had established the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project. With just three years of data, researchers didn't have much to go on.

As if to prove this point, the brine-shrimp populations bounced back the next year. Harvesters pulled in a record 20 million pounds of biomass. This winter's harvest was strong, too. The brine-shrimp industry's problem has flip-flopped; with a glut of eggs in the freezers, and weak demand, the price per pound has plummeted.

This is little consolation to some observers, who say such wild fluctuations in in brine shrimp - one of the foundations of the ecosystem - could be a sign that the lake is on the verge of collapse.

"Everything is in flux - that's how you characterize the Great Salt Lake ecosystem," says Joel Peterson, of the Nature Conservancy of Utah. "But we can't continue to keep taking away water sources, wetland areas, food resources for birds."

A complex, vulnerable system

The Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project's lead researcher, Notre Dame University Professor Gary Belovsky, cautions against predictions of doom. "We're just beginning to understand and learn about it (the lake)," he says. "We've made tremendous strides already. But as you answer one question, there are often two other questions that arise."

Researchers have been able to identify one culprit in the brine-shrimp bust of 1997 through 1999. The Southern Pacific Railroad out of Ogden crosses an earthen causeway that effectively splits the lake in half and blocks its natural circulation. As a result, the south arm, which receives fresh water from the three rivers that feed the lake, is diluted, while the north arm maintains an unnaturally high salt concentration.

Brine shrimp survive in a relatively narrow salinity range, so when the lake's salt balance is off kilter, shrimp populations suffer. Clay Perschon, who heads the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project for the Division of Wildlife Resources, says the railroad causeway has caused many of the lake's salinity problems. It's one of several causeways, however, "so the lake really isn't one lake, it's several," he says.

Two years ago, after the state adopted a new management plan for the lake, the railroad deepened and widened a breach under the causeway, and saline levels have slowly started to rise in the south arm.

Perhaps the most fundamental and important finding of the ecosystem project is that the lake is much more complex than anyone used to believe. It had been argued for years that Great Salt Lake was a simple ecosystem founded on a single species of alga: The shrimp ate the alga, and birds ate the shrimp.

But researchers have discovered many kinds of algae that vie for dominance. While brine shrimp feed on a number of algal species, they thrive on one particular species. The dominant alga - and therefore the entire ecosystem - depends on water temperature, salt levels and nutrients coming into the lake. "That means humans may have more unforeseen impacts then we used to believe," says Belovsky.

This in itself is a minor revolution in thought. Conventional wisdom says because wetlands act as a cleaning filter and salt can break down some nutrients, the lake can accept a limitless amount of pollution. Magnesium Corp. of America, which sits on the lake's western shore, was rated for years as the nation's no. 1 toxic chemical polluter. The Brigham Copper Mine, the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, dumps tens of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the lake every year. Farmington Bay on the southeast side of the lake could be one of the most polluted water bodies in the state, thanks to years of sewer discharges.

Great Salt Lake isn't the first lake to be used as a sewer and dumping ground. In the 1960s, following years of industrial pollution, Lake Erie was declared dead. Erie has been cleaned up, and is now considered an environmental success story, says Belovsky. But there's a key difference. Lake Erie "flushes itself out every 30 years or so," he says. "The Great Salt Lake doesn't flush itself out. What goes in is going to stay there."

This has implications that go far beyond the lake to logging and mining in the watershed and development across the floodplain. Can we rein in these impacts in time to avert ecological crisis? "We'd better," Belovsky says. "Given the amount of growth and the demand for water, we'd better or we're going to be caught off guard. I personally wish these issues had been addressed 15 or 20 years ago."

The pressure is on

Fifteen or 20 years ago, just more than 1 million people lived along the Wasatch Front. Today, just shy of 2 million people live on the strip of land between the lake and the Wasatch Mountains, from Brigham City in the north to Provo in the south. The state estimates there will be another 1 million by 2020, driven largely by Utah's top-in-the-nation birthrate. By 2050, 5 million people will live along the lake's eastern shores. And as the population skyrockets, so do assaults on Great Salt Lake.

Salt Lake City already uses more water per capita than any other city in the U.S., and the region's largest water provider, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, says it will need more sources within 10 years (see story above). By some estimates, the lake would be at least six feet higher today if it weren't for all the water use by humans. That means salt levels - and shrimp populations - fluctuate even more than they would naturally, something that will inevitably have an impact on the lake's birds.

While many of the wetlands surrounding the lake are more or less protected, wetlands above lake are being converted into roads and housing developments. So are the region's farmlands, where birds forage for food, especially in times of high water. And even "protected" wetlands are vulnerable when they get in the way of progress (see story next page).

But the outlook for Great Salt Lake isn't entirely bleak. Environmentalists and others are championing the ecosystem's basic needs, which Audubon's Martinson sums up as, "drink, breathe and circulate." In other words, the lake needs an adequate supply of clean river water; a buffer zone around it to protect wetlands and to allow for constantly shifting water levels; and reworked dikes and causeways to even out saline levels.

"Can we do all this with 5 million people?" asks Martinson. "Maybe, but only with a whole lot of planning."

In the last decade, mitigation money from the Central Utah Project has helped numerous preserves along the lake. The National Audubon Society established a 2,000-acre preserve on the lake's south shore and is working on acquiring another 1,600 acres. The Nature Conservancy, which has a 3,500-acre preserve on the lake's eastern shore, is making a major push to protect upland habitat and sensitive areas throughout the lake's watershed.

Last year, Davis County developed a shoreline protection plan that spells out where development should occur along the lake's edge. The shorelands plan is really just a "wish list," says Lynn de Freitas with FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, but it's a start, and the other three counties that border the lake are developing similar plans.

In 2000, the state adopted a new comprehensive management plan for the lake. Environmentalists say the plan falls short in many areas: It stays within the arbitrary "meander line," a high-water line established by the state at 4,217 feet, and fails to set any quantifiable water standard. But it goes much further to protect than did past plans. For the first time, for example, the state said the lake should be managed in the public trust.

These are humble beginnings for what someday could become a comprehensive management plan for the lake's entire 22,000-acre watershed, says University of Utah law professor Bob Adler. He suggests modeling such a plan after similar efforts on the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Columbia River Basin.

"If we can start to act now, it will be cheaper in the far run and the result will be much less restrictive," he says.

State officials are guarded about the idea, however. Perschon acknowledges that managing at the watershed level is best for any system, but he worries that such a complex and controversial undertaking would give short shrift to short-term problems such as water quality and salt balance. "I'm just anxious to see something done," says Perschon. "I don't feel like we can wait 25 years to make this really big thing happen when some of the problems we face are this year and the year after."

Some say only a major catastrophe will get the lake the attention it needs. "If the building's not burning down, what's the use of having a fire prevention system?" asks brine-shrimp harvester Mark Jensen sarcastically. "We're going to have a real ecological crisis before anything is done."

But with so little basic knowledge of Great Salt Lake, it's anyone's guess when, or even if, that crisis will come. "The insidious thing is that it is not just going to go 'boom' - where all of a sudden the system crashes," says The Nature Conservancy's Peterson. "It's been slowly degrading over the last 100 years, and we're not going to see drastic changes overnight."

When all is said and done, the biggest threat to Great Salt Lake may be lack of understanding - and lack of foresight. Peterson wonders how things might have turned out if people had recognized the lake's natural values years ago. After a long pause, he says quietly: "This thing could have been a national park."

Tim Westby writes from Salt Lake City, Utah. He can be reached at [email protected]

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Suburbanites compete for the lake's freshwater

- Lake stops sprawl in its tracks ... for now


  • Lynn de Freitas, FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake 801/583-5593;
  • Clay Perschon, Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project leader, 801/538-4809.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Tim Westby

    High Country News Classifieds