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The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi, the Great Salt Lake is roughly four times saltier than the ocean and five times bigger in surface area than Lake Tahoe—for now, anyway. (Photo: Will Saunders)

The Great Salt Lake Is Desolate. It’s Also Divine.


The grandeur of the Great Salt Lake stopped Brigham Young in his tracks and inspired John Muir to jump in for a swim. Yet now it’s in danger of disappearing, sucked dry by agriculture, climate change, and suburban lawns. Many Utahns would just as soon pave it, but as Bill Gifford learned during a yearlong exploration, there’s beauty and natural splendor here that deserves to live on.


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Kevin Perry was riding his bike near the Great Salt Lake when the first bullet whizzed over his head. A couple seconds later, a second round plunked into the sand a few yards from his feet. He hit the ground, crawling under a trailer he was towing. Terror battled confusion: Who the hell was shooting at him, and from where?

It was October 2017, and he was alone on the playa, a wide-open, waterless lake bed that extended for miles in every direction. The nearest cover or vegetation was more than a mile away, and Perry knew this part of the lake was popular with target shooters, so it was not a good place to be exposed. “They just saw something moving out there and decided to take a couple of shots at it,” said the 53-year-old University of Utah associate professor. “After that I was always decked out head to toe in hunter’s orange.”

Perry is an atmospheric scientist, and he was on an obsessive quest: he was pedaling a fat-tire bike, stopping every 500 meters to collect soil samples, as part of a project in which he would cover the entire perimeter of the Great Salt Lake. All told, he would ride more than 2,300 miles, in snowstorms and baking summer heat, starting early and often not getting home until midnight. His trailer sometimes sank to its axles in oozy mud that looked perfectly dry. More than once he wanted to cheat, to shorten the project, but thinking about the ridicule he would face kept him going.

Perry was doing the kind of boring science that suddenly becomes not so boring if certain bad things happen—for example, studying coronaviruses prior to November 2019. The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi, the Great Salt Lake is roughly four times saltier than the ocean and five times bigger in surface area than Lake Tahoe—for now, anyway. In the 1980s, the lake’s water levels rose high enough to flood highways and threaten railway lines; today it’s flirting with all-time lows, brought on by a period of drought that has parched the Southwest since the early 2000s. Some models predict that the lake, an iconic feature of the Intermountain West and a contributor to Utah’s legendary snowfall, could disappear almost entirely in the next few decades.

Because the Great Salt Lake is so shallow—imagine pouring water onto a cake plate—even a small drop in levels exposes large areas of its bed to the elements. Thus, while the lake once covered some 1,750 square miles, its waters now dampen barely more than half that area, leaving a zone of playa larger than the San Francisco Bay. Perry’s mission was to check for heavy metals in the soil, and to determine whether this vast swath of newly exposed sediment could end up fueling apocalyptic dust storms and render Salt Lake City all but uninhabitable.

That would suck, obviously, but I was more intrigued by what Perry hadn’t seen during his circumnavigation: other people. For company as he worked, there were huge flocks of migrating waterfowl, herds of grazing cattle, knots of deer, soaring hawks and eagles, a fox, even pelicans, and he saw tracks left by coyotes and cougars—but there were no humans, other than a couple of angry ranchers. Even the guys who shot at him didn’t stick around to say sorry.

“People don’t go out there,” Perry told me. “I’d lived here 15 years and had barely explored the place. When I started to, I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is amazing.

“It’s kind of like on Antiques Roadshow, where you might have a book that doesn’t look like much,” says Marjorie Chan, a professor of geography at the University of Utah. “And my job as the appraiser is to tell you that you have an extraordinary book. It has all this history and tells you so much about the world. Even though you don’t think it looks like the Grand Canyon or Zion, this is an extraordinary place. It’s one of a kind. And we just take it for granted.”

As I would find out, the Great Salt Lake has that effect on certain people. But not many. In the spring of 2020, as the pandemic deepened and stir-crazy hordes piled into Utah’s national parks and mountain trails, I decided to head in the opposite direction and explore this strikingly weird, sometimes disgusting, almost always beautiful, and seriously endangered resource.

Ultimately, I was escaping one crisis only to go down the rabbit hole of another, far more serious one: the climate-change-fueled extreme drought that has taken hold across the Southwest. But at the time, I had a much smaller question: Why does nearly everybody hate this place?

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Salt Lake City photographer Will Saunders captured this image of the Great Salt Lake—and several others that follow—using a drone. (Will Saunders)

The lake had alternately fascinated and repelled me since I moved to Utah four years ago to pursue my dream of becoming a middle-aged ski bum. I’d turned 50, and it seemed like now or never, so I went to Park City for what I thought would be six months. At the end of that winter, I met a special someone and won a season pass for the following year, so I stayed.

The lake plays an important role in the snowfall that drew me to Utah in the first place. Lake-effect snow contributes a small amount to Utah’s impressive totals, but the lake itself serves as a 75-mile runway for winter storms streaming in from the Pacific. When they crash into the Wasatch Mountains—a wall of rock rising 6,000 feet above the Salt Lake Valley—they dump their cargo on resorts like Alta and Snowbird. In late spring and summer, meltwater feeds back into the lake, completing the cycle.

“Utahns love to hate the lake, and I used to follow that same narrative, that it’s stinky, buggy, and dead,” Jaimi Butler told me. “Now I never shut up about Great Salt Lake—my family will tell you.”

In spring and fall, the lake’s marshy fringes host millions of migrating birds, in flocks so huge that they show up on weather radar. The sunsets are psychedelic. Yet the lake itself remains strangely unloved, and it’s not a popular destination. Locals and Yelp reviewers complain, with some justification, about the clouds of bugs that swarm the shoreline from May through August, and the sulfurous smell in some places. There are no fish to catch, and the extreme saltiness wreaks havoc on boat engines. The lake is no good for water-skiing or wakeboarding, and nobody is rushing to build lakefront mansions, weekend cabins, or thirsty golf courses, although suburban developments are gradually encroaching on its dried-up edges. Parts of the area are so harsh and inhospitable that NASA is studying them for clues about life on other planets.

Shunned and disdained, the lake’s become a magnet for LULUs—locally undesirable land uses—including a military bombing range; one of the largest Superfund sites in America (a factory called U.S. Magnesium); a new state prison, currently under construction; the recently expanded Salt Lake City International Airport; the Kennecott copper mine’s smelter stack and toxic tailings pond; several sewage-treatment plants and mineral-evaporation lagoons; a proposed storage landfill for hazardous waste; and an inland port that will bring additional warehouses and 24/7 truck traffic.

Meanwhile, the idea of saving the lake is a low priority for all but a few passionate souls (notably, a local environmental group called Friends of the Great Salt Lake). Indeed, it was just a few decades ago that an eminent Utah geologist suggested, possibly in jest, using nuclear bombs to blast a hole in the desert beside the lake, as a flood-control measure. (Back then the problem was that the water was too high.) In the fall of 2020, a commenter on the Deseret News website expressed a common sentiment. “We do not need birds or wildlife,” he wrote in response to an article about the lake’s future. He saw no reason for it to have one: “We need more room for people. Let the lake go. We will have more room to build houses for our increasing population.”

It hasn’t always been this way. For millennia, local tribes organized their lives around the lake, camping in caves near its edges, and hunting and fishing in its fecund marshes. In one such cave, on the lake’s west side, archaeologists recently found a 10,000-year-old spear point with flecks of blood from what was probably a mammoth.

Early white settlers were also wowed. Jim Bridger tasted the salty water in the 1820s and concluded that he’d reached the Pacific Ocean. When Mormon leader Brigham Young first set eyes on the Great Salt Lake in July 1847, after a 1,500-mile westward pilgrimage across the plains and the Rocky Mountains, he told his ragged and exhausted followers, “This is the place.” The salty lake, similar to the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan, confirmed their belief that they had arrived in a region that seemed like a metaphorical second Holy Land, so they stayed.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Salt Lakers flocked to the Great Saltair, a hugely popular onion-domed bathing pavilion on the southern shore that boasted the largest dance floor in the West, along with a sumptuous dining hall. It’s long gone, but I got a look at the site on a chilly November morning in 2020, guided by Utah state historic preservation officer Chris Merritt, who showed me pilings that once supported a wooden roller coaster.

Like many institutions in Salt Lake City, this Coney Island of the Rockies was built by the Mormon Church, intended as a more wholesome alternative to the seedier establishments elsewhere on the lakeshore, some of which offered gambling, lascivious ­entertainments, and even beer. Nevertheless, it took Merritt only a casual kick into the soft sand to uncover part of a broken whiskey bottle. We looked closer. The sand glittered with fragments of old glass bottles that I am pretty sure never contained any milk. “This was under the dance floor, where people went to drink,” he said.

The Great Saltair thrived from about 1870 to 1925, when it burned down for the first time. It was quickly rebuilt, but lake levels declined, the Depression hit, and the automobile allowed people to explore newer and less buggy destinations in the mountains around Salt Lake City. Abandoned in 1959, the Saltair burned again in 1970. Someone erected a third incarnation of the old bathing hall on a slightly different spot, repurposing a former aircraft hangar from a nearby air base, but it too failed to thrive. These days its graffiti-covered hulk hosts the occasional sketchy concert but few bathers.

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(Will Saunders)

At first the lake’s bad rep seemed well deserved; it firmly rejected my own early attempts to get cozy with it. There was the brutal summer sun, the noxious smell, and of course the biting gnats, which Captain Howard Stansbury—who led a U.S. Army surveying expedition around the lake starting in 1849—had called “insufferable.”

Just getting to it proved daunting. The lake forms the northwestern edge of Salt Lake City, but much of the shoreline is blocked by locked gates, we-really-mean-it KEEP OUT signs, fenced-off cattle ranges, busy railroad lines and highways and warehouse complexes, and acres upon acres of dense, hostile phragmites—an invasive marshland plant that has taken over much of the muddy southeastern corner of the lake, closest to the city.

One day at Spiral Jetty, the famous earthwork created in 1970 by Robert Smithson on the remote northern arm of the lake, I stepped back to take an Instagram pic and nearly planted a boot on a rattlesnake. A foray onto the parched lake bed near Saltair left my Blundstones coated in thick gray muck that I later had to remove with a rock hammer. I tried mountain biking on Stansbury Island, only to round a corner and come face to face with two Second Amendment enthusiasts who were emptying their semiautomatics into the hillside just below me.

I was ready to give up. This is the place?

Then someone put me in touch with Scott Baxter, a 60-year-old retired corporate executive who kayaks on the lake and in its marshes several times a week. “It’s kind of like getting to know a porcupine,” he explained patiently. “It’s not a natural thing to do, and you’ve got to do it carefully.”

Last year, on a balmy evening in late May, I met Baxter at Antelope Island, a low spine of mountains that rises from the lake just northwest of Salt Lake City. Joined to the mainland by a causeway, Antelope is no longer technically an island, thanks to retreating waters. This causes problems when members of its 500-strong bison herd decide to amble toward the runways of the busy international airport, just a few miles away on the other side of a newly dry land bridge. Beloved by tourists, the bison are ­ornery beasts who have been known to stomp the occasional trail runner. Nevertheless, the Antelope Island marina remains one of the few spots where it’s possible to get out on the lake.

Baxter rolled up in a Subaru Outback with two sea kayaks strapped to the roof. We ­unloaded the boats, and I noticed that they were wooden, lovingly built by hand. We grabbed paddles and carried them down a cement ramp into a thick black swarm of brine flies buzzing ragefully at our approach. “Luckily they don’t bite,” he said, setting his boat right in their midst. They swirled away­ obediently.

The water in the marina smelled foul, a combination of sewage and dead marine life, and its surface was streaked with a fecal-looking brown foam that clung to my paddle. God forbid I flip this thing, I thought. It was easy to see why the kayaking business Baxter had tried to start didn’t last long. The water was so low that the “floating” metal docks were slumped on squidgy black sediment. He led the way with the easy strokes of a seasoned paddler, and we slipped out of the harbor. Fortunately, conditions started to improve before long.

Baxter had been a high-level executive with a company that produces automotive safety equipment, working 70-hour weeks until a series of health issues told him that he’d need to either retire young or die young. He now uses his free time to build boats and explore the lake, taking photos of the birdlife and bearing witness to a place that most people see only from a distance. He paddles as much as 25 miles a week, wearing a survival suit in winter, which he says is his favorite time to go out. Every January he leads friends on an epic 20-mile paddle down the remote western shore of Antelope Island.

As we left the marina behind, we were alone with the birds, who dived or flew out of reach as we approached, only to resurface in our wake. This was during the fraught early months of the pandemic, and I hadn’t been out of the house much for several weeks. We were both grateful for the company.

We passed a small rocky island, ruled over by tall blue herons. When Captain Stansbury explored the lake in 1850, his men called this Egg Island, because they robbed the heron nests for breakfast. In another mile or so, we rounded a rocky point and began heading south along the coast of Antelope Island. The water suddenly became clear. We stopped paddling and gazed down at the sandy bottom, drifting along on a gentle current. To the west, jagged desert peaks rose above a mercury horizon. Ahead of us, steep-sided mountains tumbled down to the lake.

This was the place Baxter had fallen in love with: weird, unique, primeval, mysterious. “We’ve got 20 miles of open water in front of us and not a single boat,” he said. Case closed. I was hooked.

As the venerable Utah geologist William Lee Stokes put it decades ago, “Geologically speaking, the Great Salt Lake is variable, transitory, and ephemeral.”

It’s all of those things. But summer on the Great Salt Lake is also blazing hot and plagued by insects—even Baxter hangs up his paddle in July and August—so I stayed away too, reading and reaching out to scientists who study it. The history I absorbed isn’t always happy, but it is compelling.

The lake’s level has been in steady decline since 2003. In 2017, a team of Utah State University scientists published a study in Nature Geoscience that tracked its ups and downs since white settlers arrived in the 1840s. They found that while the lake has risen and fallen over time, it’s currently 11 to 14 feet lower than its mean natural level, and trending lower. (The average depth is now seven feet. The lake’s deepest point is around 33 feet.) In August of this year, the lake dropped below its previous record low of 4,191.4 feet above sea level, prompting another round of gloomy headlines.

Drought has parched the Southwest since the early 2000s. The Great Salt Lake, an iconic feature of the Intermountain West and a contributor to Utah’s legendary snowfall, could disappear in the next few decades.

While one is tempted to blame climate change, that’s not what the U.S.U. scientists concluded. Precipitation levels had remained more or less constant since the Mormon pioneers arrived, with some variation from decade to decade.

The decline was almost entirely due to people diverting more and more water from the three main rivers that feed the lake: the Jordan, which runs through the Salt Lake Valley; the Weber, which drains the mountains to the west; and the Bear, which snakes for 500 miles through Wyoming and Idaho before reaching the lake. The Bear alone is responsible for 60 percent of inflow; this summer the water dried up several times before making it to the lake, due to drought and agricultural demands. “We haven’t begun to feel the effects of climate change,” says Wayne Wurtsbaugh, an expert on watershed science who helped run the U.S.U. study. “Our prediction was that in the future there will be 20 percent less runoff, from climate change. That’s huge. That combined with population growth could really put the screws to the lake.”

He and his colleagues fear that the lake could easily follow other so-called terminal lakes into oblivion, such as the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union, currently at 5 percent of its historical size. Closer to home, there’s California’s Owens Lake, which dried up when the City of Los Angeles diverted the Owens River—all of it—for drinking water starting in 1913. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the exposed lake bed is now a major source of dust pollution, requiring billions of dollars’ worth of environmental mitigation, the cost of which is tacked onto Southern California water bills.

That’s part of why Kevin Perry was examining the dry lake bed. He wanted to see how easily the sediment could be stripped off by wind and hurled into the lungs of the 1.2 million people who live in the Salt Lake Valley. His conclusion: We’re OK for now, because the dust is kept in place by a a crusty layer. But if more of the lake bed gets exposed, or is torn up by people driving ATVs and other off-road vehicles, we’ll have to put our masks back on just to breathe.

“If that happens, all bets are off,” Perry says. “Do we really want to be known as Dry Lake City? Or Dust Lake City?”

Salt Lake pelicans
Salt Lake pelicans (Jaimi Butler)

The lake has always been in upheaval of some kind. The place we know today is the product of millennia upon millennia of dramatic climate change, some of it as catastrophic as the worst predictions being made today. Sixty years ago, the lake hit its all-time record low (until this past summer). Go back another few decades, however, and Scientific American was already pronouncing the lake dead and doomed in 1904. “Statistics indicate that Great Salt Lake, the Dead Sea of America, is doomed—that it is gradually drying up,” wrote journalist Charles Alma Byers.

As recently as the 1980s, the lake had too much water, at least for human convenience. A series of heavy snow years sent flood­waters raging through the streets of Salt Lake City, and the rising lake threatened railway lines and Interstate 80. I remember an art history professor back east insisting that Spiral Jetty, then submerged under about 15 feet of water, would never be seen again. The Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams wrote her lyrical book Refuge about the destructive power of the lake, which surged over the levees protecting the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, about an hour north of Salt Lake City.

The situation became so dire that the famously tightfisted Utah legislature spent $60 million to build a pumping station to spew excess lake water into the West Desert, an ancient floodplain that includes the famous Bonneville Salt Flats. The pumps ran for two years before they were shut down, never to be needed again.

But that flood was merely a drop in the bucket compared with its predecessor, Lake Bonneville, a massive prehistoric body of water that once occupied much of the Great Basin. The size of Lake Michigan, it stretched for hundreds of miles from what is now southern Idaho down to near Bryce Canyon National Park, in central Utah, and west into what is now the Nevada desert.

“It would have been a great time to have a boat,” says Jim Van Leeuwen, a veteran biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources who has studied and worked on the lake for more than 20 years. “You could have gone anywhere. You could have had your own island.”

Indeed, you could—until the day about 18,000 years ago when a natural dam burst at what is now Red Rock Pass, in Idaho, and the pent-up waters of Lake Bonneville exploded into what is now the Snake River Canyon. The water poured out of the lake for about a year, geologists believe, with such massive force that boulders from the cataclysm have been found dozens of miles away from Red Rock Pass. It would have been terrifying, and there’s evidence that humans may have already arrived in the area by then.

That was also the last time water from the Great Basin reached the Pacific, by way of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. The lake level rose and fell over the ensuing millennia, leaving its former shorelines etched onto the nearby mountainsides like bathtub rings. But the overall trend has been steadily downward. “The Great Salt Lake is like the puddle at the bottom of the bathtub,” says Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

And we all know what happens to the water at the bottom of a bathtub: if you don’t refill the tub, it dries up.

On the last warm afternoon in October of 2020, I drove out to the Great Salt Lake Marina with my inflatable paddleboard and a plan. Finally, three years after moving to Utah, I was going to take a swim in the lake. Maybe. If the water wasn’t too gross. It had been a long, rainless summer, and the lake was already flirting with its record lows, 20 feet under the peak it reached during the Reagan administration.

I hauled my board down to the dock and pumped it up. Sitting on the ramp was a small sailboat on a trailer, with only its stern in the water. The engine cover had been ­removed, which seemed like a bad sign. Three middle-aged guys were eating lunch in the cockpit. “This is as far as we got,” one said as I dipped my paddle into the murky water. “Have you had your tetanus shot?”

Despite being located about 700 miles from the nearest ocean, the marina housed some pretty serious sailboats, and the tall, sturdy breakwater suggested that things could get stormy out there. As I paddled away from the dock, another boarder was coming in, her wetsuit down around her waist because of the unseasonable warmth. I thought to myself: At least I’m not the only crazy one. I still wasn’t sure about swimming. But when I got about a mile offshore, I looked down through clear green water at the bottom, which was as deep as my paddle was long. I dipped a foot in and it was, if not exactly warm, certainly not cold. It was actually perfect. Another plus: no biting creatures. Only the tiny brine shrimp I could see flitting about, each no larger than a fingernail clipping.

I had run out of excuses, so I slipped off my board, letting the cool green water close over my head. My feet bounced off the spongy bottom, and I sproinged back to the surface. As advertised, the hypersaline water made me more buoyant, and I floated chest high. My skin tingled. It felt wonderful.

I turned to face the southern sun, my feet pointed at the steep flanks of the Oquirrh (“Ochre”) Mountains rising above the ­marina and the sad, hollow hulk of the last Great Saltair. Behind that, against the mountainside, the smokestack of the Kennecott copper smelter rose more than a thousand feet into the sky.

John Muir had wandered down to these same shores one windy, wavy day in May of 1877, and plunged his hairy environmentalist body into what he called “a right lusty relationship with the brave old lake. … Away ­­I sped in free, glad motion, as if, like a fish, ­­I had been afloat all my life.”

I felt exactly the same way. I could not drown in this water if I tried. I swam a few strokes toward Antelope Island, which rises from the lake bed a few miles to the northeast. Then I floated.

It felt peaceful, but everywhere I looked there were signs of geological violence. The flanks of the Wasatch Mountains, in the eastern distance, marked the site of a massive continental fault line. During the first few days of the pandemic, a 5.7 earthquake hit within two miles of where I was, shaking the ancient lake bed sediments under downtown Salt Lake City “like a bowl of jelly,” as a University of Utah seismologist told the Salt Lake Tribune. Older buildings were damaged, and the airport was forced to close.

As it turns out, seismic activity is what formed the lake in the first place, as retired University of Utah geography professor Genevieve Atwood explained to me.

“California, Oregon, and Antelope Island are moving west faster than Alta and Denver,” she said. When seen from above, the landscape seems to be stretching, as the Oquirrhs and other ranges drift toward the Pacific, carried by shifting geological plates. Water rushed in to fill the resulting basin.

The Great Salt Lake is often described as a “remnant” of Lake Bonneville, but Atwood and geologist Jack Oviatt have collaborated on research showing that Bonneville was only the latest incarnation of several large lakes to occupy the Great Basin over the past few million years or so. The lake has risen, and fallen, and risen again many times. Modern humans have only known it during a tiny band of geological history.

“The Great Salt Lake is the best historian of climate change in North America, on par with the Greenland ice sheet,” she said. “You can push back, not just to Lake Bonneville, but to the dry time before Bonneville, and the glacial time before that, and before that. As a result, you have a continuous record going back, back, back.”

The only constant with the lake, she concluded, is change. “I find it quite comforting to think that these processes keep recurring,” she said. But, she added, “When it starts getting below its historical low levels, we should really be hearing alarm bells.”

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(Will Saunders)

A couple of weeks after my swim, on a Thursday morning in late October, I came back to the marina and prowled the docks until I spotted a 30-foot aluminum boat that belongs to the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Biologists Jim Van Leeuwen and Kyle Stone were pulling on waterproof Carhartts and rubber boots in preparation for a long day on the lake. The weather had turned colder since my swim, and there was a dusting of snow on the mountains. It was a beautiful day to be here.

We motored slowly out of the harbor, the props all but brushing against the bottom of the shallow, dredged channel. “We’re seven inches above the record low,” Van Leeuwen announced, his blue eyes regarding me evenly over his mask. In 22 years of working on the lake, he’s seen it drop nearly 12 feet. This past summer was the driest in decades. “We need water,” he said.

When we reached the last channel marker, he said, “Now’s a good time to put in your earplugs,” and then disappeared into the cabin. Because of COVID, I had to stay outside, on the rear deck. I held on as Yamaha 300’s rocketed us forward, ripping a 40-mile-per-hour seam across the water.

This was Van Leeuwen and Stone’s regular water-nutrient sampling mission. Every month, weather permitting, they circle the lake and collect water at designated sites. After 20 minutes, Van Leeuwen cut the motor and we drifted to a stop. The water here went 21 feet down, making it one of the deeper spots in the main stem of the lake.

Van Leeuwen lowered a collecting tube a few feet, then hauled it back up full of clear water. He then methodically distributed the contents into plastic sample jars, to be analyzed for minerals and nutrients, and then lowered it again, deeper this time. While Van Leeuwen took readings, Stone noted the results in a waterproof notebook. “It’s like taking a snapshot of the water column,” he explained.

Things got more interesting on the second, deeper dip. This time the container came up full of a putrescent yellow liquid that smelled like Satan’s colonoscopy. “If you can smell this, you know you don’t have COVID,” Van Leeuwen joked.

This was the brine layer, salty, dense, smelly water that has sunk to the bottom of the lake and stayed there—the true dregs. It’s so heavy that it stays submerged, which is a good thing, since it contains most of the mercury and other pollutants that have made their way into the lake. The surface water, by contrast, is fairly clean, thanks to multitudes of hungry organisms living in it, from phytoplankton to brine shrimp. Hearing all this made me feel better about my swim, but worse about the lake drying up. Whatever is in that nasty brine layer, we’re all better off if it stays buried.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Salt Lakers flocked to the Great Saltair, a hugely popular onion-domed bathing pavilion on the southern shore that boasted the largest dance floor in the West.

Over the course of the day, we would inscribe a 100-mile circle around the lake, alone on the big water except for a handful of fishing boats deploying what looked like orange oil-spill containment booms. They were part of a fleet that catches brine shrimp, plying the lake from October to January, harvesting not the shrimp but their eggs, or “cysts,” which are processed and then shipped abroad as food for shrimp farms. Each individual cyst is tiny—a single tablespoon can hold 250,000—but they are produced in such dense masses that they form what look like oil slicks on the surface. Planes circled overhead, directing the boats to the richest-looking spots.

The industry is worth an estimated $60 million a year; the fishermen’s licensing fees pay for the boat we’re on and for Van Leeuwen and Stone’s research. The scientists were, in essence, tending the machinery of an enormous protein factory. At one stop, Van Leeuwen dipped a long mesh sampling net into the water, with a collection jar attached to the bottom. It came up teeming with brine shrimp, so thick with wriggling animals and tiny cysts that it looked almost murky. The shrimpers harvested 30 million pounds of eggs last season, yet they barely made a dent in the overall population. Stone had done a back-of-the-envelope calculation and figured that the total biomass of shrimp in the lake weighed as much as a herd of 13,000 East African elephants.

It’s not just fishermen who covet the brine shrimp. On our way down the east side of the lake, past a small island called Fremont, Van Leeuwen handed me binoculars and pointed. The water was covered with small floating birds called eared grebes. There were millions of them: something like 90 percent of the world’s population of eared grebes spend the fall at the Great Salt Lake, before flying south for the winter.

Alas, the grebes don’t get much love. “They’re kind of a pathetic bird,” says John Luft, of the Utah DNR, who is Van Leeuwen and Stone’s boss. “They have a chubby little body with stumpy little wings. I call them butter tubs.”

It might be more accurate to call them well adapted. Up close the grebes have dazzling red eyes and a spiffy crest. They dive underwater for up to 50 seconds, but their legs are positioned so far back on their bodies that they can barely walk on land. This can very quickly become a problem when flocks of grebes descend on wet parking lots that they’ve mistaken for lakes.

Apart from that design flaw, they’re amply suited to their niche. Each grebe will hoover up as many as 30,000 brine shrimp per day, becoming so fat that they temporarily can’t fly. They then spend two or three weeks exercising their wings before taking off in early December, headed for California or Baja, Mexico, on their long migration.

As we sped back to shore that day, the lake remained glassy calm. Distant islands and mountain ranges appeared to float upon a pool of silver; it was hard to tell what was lake and what was sky, what was real and what a reflection. It felt like an inland ocean. “This is a place that most people don’t get to see, because of the difficulties in getting out here,” Stone told me. “We’re the lucky few.”

Van Leeuwen was more pessimistic. As I hopped off the boat and onto the dock, he said, “I just hope I haven’t wasted my life.”

I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of the life that I had seen. Far from being dead, the lake is teeming with a mind-­boggling number of creatures. The brine shrimp and eared grebes had adapted to the extreme environment. And they had not merely survived; they’d thrived. The shrimp can tolerate salinity levels that would kill most other animals, while the grebes possess a “salt pump” in their digestive tract that acts as a personal desalination system.

Even weirder is a third form of life found in the lake: stromatolites, a coral-like formation produced by a type of blue-green alga. The lake’s stromatolites cover much of the bottom—they were the spongy things my feet touched during my swim—and their enormous mass makes them the planet’s second-largest natural reef formation, behind the Great Barrier Reef.

But even these bizarre life-forms are like house sparrows compared with the weird creatures that inhabit the lake’s far northern reaches. On a blustery day in late November, I drove two hours to the site of Spiral Jetty. A railroad causeway built in 1959 had effectively cut off this part of the lake from the rest, and because of scant inflow from springs and creeks, the water became so salty that it had turned a kind of deep rose-pink, which is what caught Smithson’s eye.

This remote site, 20 miles from the nearest paved road, fit Smithson’s vision: he wanted a spot where his design would be exposed to the elements and to the forces of climatic and geological change. “The work is about timelessness in a lot of different ways,” says art historian Hikmet Sidney Loe, author of an encyclopedic book about Spiral Jetty. “He was interested in deep time, ideas of time stretching.”

I was accompanied by Jaimi Butler, coordinator of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, and one of the lake’s most zealous fans. After growing up in the Salt Lake Valley, she has devoted her career to the lake, first by studying eared grebes, then by working for the brine shrimp ­industry, and now at Westminster. She brought me out not to look at Spiral Jetty—which was still here, despite my art history professor’s gloomy prediction—but to really understand the lake.

“Utahns love to hate the lake, and I used to follow that same narrative, that it’s stinky, buggy, and dead,” she said. “Now I never shut up about Great Salt Lake—my family will tell you.”

She led me a few hundred yards across damp sand to a set of low black mounds crowned by tufts of white. Crude oil seeps to the surface in this area, coming up through what Butler describes as a line of underground volcanoes. Oil companies had tried to drill here back in the 1950s and 1960s, but the oil was too heavy and low-grade to be very profitable, Butler said. They departed, but the crude continued to seep.

In summer it warms and becomes soft, like road tar, and the white tufts turned out to be feathers of pelicans that had died after becoming trapped. “The people who study the La Brea Tar Pits are really excited about this,” Butler said. I could see why. There were dozens of dead birds in various states of decomposition, their twisted skeletons entombed in the black tar. Trippy-looking, and an unfortunately apt symbol for fossil-fuel-driven climate change.

Butler and Bonnie Baxter have been studying this corner of the lake intensively for a decade. Their primary interest is not the pelicans but the pink water, which is colored by a red-pigmented microbe in the group halophilic archaea, the most extreme of extremophiles. They’re so hardy that they can survive habitat with broiling sun and 30 percent salinity. Butler and Baxter are currently studying the microbes on a grant from NASA. Some astrobiologists consider the Great Salt Lake to be analogous to lakes that may once have existed on Mars, before the red planet’s climate was drastically altered and the lakes disappeared. Whichever organisms managed to hang on to life would likely have been found in those lakes as they dried up and became saltier.

One task of the Mars rover Perseverance will be to dig a couple dozen core samples from the craft’s exploration zone, a dry lake bed that appears to contain a high level of salt crystals. Those samples will be stored and then retrieved by a later mission for return to Earth.

“We get called upon to think about life on other planets because we are studying the limits of life, and the limits of life are an important question if you’re thinking about whether life could exist on another space body,” Baxter told me. “How hot can they handle it? How cold can life be? How salty can life be? We’re looking at the limits of that for earthly life.”

Image
(Will Saunders)

The Great Salt Lake’s level fluctuates with the seasons, typically rising a few feet in the spring and early summer, then declining roughly the same amount toward its low in the fall. In spring 2020, it rose less than a foot before it began to drop, inch by inch. We had had decent snowfall that winter, but it had started off slowly; when the snow finally came, it hit in huge, multiday dumps. One storm closed Little Cottonwood Canyon for more than two days. Global weirding was in full effect.

The Wasatch ended up with about 80 percent of its normal snow volume. But this wasn’t enough to help the lake. When everything melted, the water just seemed to vanish, swallowed up by soil still parched from the previous, rainless summer and fall. Very little runoff made it to the Great Salt Lake, which breached its old record low in mid-July, becoming a symbol of the exceptional drought that gripped much of the West. Television cameras filmed metal cranes hoisting sailboats out of the marina.

“People think that if we get a few years of above-average snow, we’ll do just fine,” says Kevin Perry. “No. In 2019, we had record snow, and the lake went up three feet in spring and down two feet in summer. We gained a foot. We’d need to have 14 years of record snow to get back to normal.”

Even worse, as the climate warms, more precipitation falls as rain than as snow, particularly at lower elevations. According to Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, snowpack accumulates into a mass that melts quickly and flows down to the lake, whereas rain is more likely to soak into the ground.

“We’ve been able to document declines in snowfall and snowpack, at elevations below 6,500 feet,” he said.

On top of all that, more and more water is being diverted before it reaches the lake. Agriculture accounts for about 85 percent of Utah’s water consumption, and the ­primary crop by acreage is alfalfa. The problem is that alfalfa requires large amounts of water to grow but is prone to spoilage if it gets too much rain. Much of the Utah crop is exported to Asia and the Middle East; Bailey Farms, a large commercial grower with a production facility near Tremonton, Utah, near the northern end of the lake, offers versions of itswebsite in Chinese and Arabic.

My feet bounced off the spongy bottom, and I sproinged back to the surface. As advertised, the hypersaline water made me more buoyant, and I floated chest high in the dense liquid. My skin tingled. It felt wonderful.

It’s tempting to blame agriculture for the lake’s decline. As far back as 1904, Scientific American pointed the finger squarely at farmers for taking water for irrigation and starving the lake. Making the situation more complicated is Utah’s complex system of water rights, typical out west, where nearly every drop that flows is spoken for by someone somewhere. The Great Salt Lake, on the other hand, has had no water rights of its own until this fall, when a coalition of environmental groups secured a donation of 21,000 acre-feet from Rio Tinto and the Central Utah Water District. (If you’re keeping score, that’s enough to raise the elevation of the lake by about 0.4 inches.)

But the lake’s worst enemy is really not farmers, it’s folks like me. In 1991, the state approved a plan to dam and divert the Bear River to provide more water for the growing Salt Lake City suburbs. The project has been controversial from the beginning, and it has moved slowly, but the Utah Division of Water Resources released a plan in 2019 for at least three dammed reservoirs to hold water, and a pipeline to shunt it south that would be at least 50 miles long. The project could claim between 20 and 30 percent of the water that would otherwise reach the marshes on the edge of the lake.

“Except for climate change itself, the Bear River Development Project is the greatest threat to the future of the Great Salt Lake,” says Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

By some estimates, the Bear River project alone would drop the level at least a foot, a huge amount. More disturbing is the destination of some of that water: my house. In the month of May, the four people who live in it used an astonishing (to me) 21,000 gallons of water. In June we guzzled even more— 28,000 gallons, or nearly 1,000 gallons per day. Total cost: about $60. By comparison, our electric bill was more than $250. Thanks to subsidies and sales taxes, water is too cheap in Utah, despite being so scarce. In Salt Lake City, I pay a top rate of $2.99 per 100 cubic feet, which is half that of Las Vegas; in Phoenix, water costs more than six times as much.

Most of that water, I am sad to say, was used to keep our trees and lawn alive—actually, our landlord’s not very big lawn, since we rent. We don’t have the option to redo the landscaping of a house we don’t own, so we try to water minimally, always at night or in the early morning, keeping the grass somewhere between light green and dead brown. Excuses, excuses. Meanwhile, the little creek that runs through the neighborhood stopped flowing back in early June. Every time our sprinklers switched on, I felt like a jerk.

Frankel argues that the Bear River dams would only contribute to what is really a ­resource glut, and that we should be conserving water rather than building more dams. The project’s planned capacity of 220,000 acre-feet represents enough water for the needs of a million people—in other words, a million water-hogging Utah people. But the legislature has tanked multiple conservation bills over the past two decades.

As the drought intensified in spring and early summer, Utah governor Spencer Cox hemmed and hawed over imposing any kind of restrictions, ultimately deciding against any mandatory measures. Instead, one weekend in June, he appealed to citizens to pray for moisture. He sounded like Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker.

He was ridiculed on Twitter, but a few weeks later it actually did rain, a little. Last summer was dry for months, but this summer has been different. Once a week, afternoon thunderstorms materialize in the mountains and give the valleys a sprinkle. We even had a pair of bona fide gully washers in Salt Lake City, sending water rushing through the streets and toward the lake. But the level kept dropping, along with reservoirs around Utah and across the Southwest. A recent state report concluded that the lake is on track for a 3.3-foot decline by 2030. Even if strong water-conservation strategies are implemented, the lake is still projected to drop by about 1.2 inches; and if nothing is done, and Utah’s population continues to grow at its present rapid rate, it could drop by more than 11 feet in the next decade.

As mentioned earlier, the average depth is seven feet, so you can do the math. “I can’t tell you how much dust that will create,” says Bonnie Baxter. “It’s terrifying.”

This is a dire prospect for humans, especially those of us who will have to breathe that dust. It’s probably also bad news for many of the migratory birds who converge on the lake, a pivotal stop in North American flyways, each spring and fall.

Back in 1850, explorer Howard Stansbury remarked that the lake resembled a mirage at certain times of day, in a certain light, from certain angles. Perhaps it really is a mirage. Perhaps one day we will wake up and it will be gone. Or, if not gone, reduced to a distant noxious puddle where only the most extreme (and stinky) microorganisms can survive. But are we saying goodbye to the Great Salt Lake—or is the Great Salt Lake saying goodbye to us?

One thing I learned during my explorations is that nature is playing the long game. The deep geological history of the lake reveals that, in all likelihood, this is not the lowest it’s ever been. It has been this dry in times before human witness. And it’s been much wetter. Things could change, if not this decade, then perhaps this century. Or millennium. It could have a future we can’t currently imagine.

That’s what the ancient shorelines written on the mountainsides, and the sedimentary layers and fossil deposits and core samples of the lake bed, have to tell us: the lake may dwindle away for now, but it will rise again. Eventually. Maybe inevitably.

Will we?