Utah’s Great Salt Lake risked disappearing. Unprecedented weather is bringing it back
Only months ago, scientists reported the megadrought water levels in Utah’s Great Salt Lake were at a record low and the body of water risked disappearing after years of drought.
But following a historic winter snowfall and rapidly warming temperatures, the lake’s storyline has a bemusing twist: the body of water the size of Delaware is rising. A series of unprecedented weather patterns brought not only remnants of the west coast’s atmospheric rivers but widespread wet avalanches, which are quickly sending spring runoff to the lake and its tributaries.
The Utah department of natural resources announced the Great Salt Lake had reached a record low last fall. Lake levels were expected to continue to drop, with scientists and researchers cautioning in a January report that the lake could dry up in less than five years due to excessive water use and a worsening climate crisis.
“We have had quite the active winter in the western US,” said Mike Wessler, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. While Utah hasn’t borne the brunt of this winter’s atmospheric rivers, it does receive some of their moisture, a pattern Wessler said was still impactful. Utah had also seen five months of “warm, powerful storms” resulting in historic snowpack numbers, especially in the northern region of the state, he added.
In the mountain west region, meteorologists, avalanche forecasters and ski industry professionals describe the snow water equivalent (SWE) to estimate how much water is in the snowpack should it melt. Utah’s snowpack has nearly 29in of water, a record high. As the spring temperatures increase, the Great Salt Lake’s water level will continue to rise. There’s been a 3ft rise in some parts of the Great Salt Lake, and more is expected during spring runoff, according to Laura Vernon, researcher and coordinator at the Utah division of water resources. In other areas of the lake, water level increased more than a foot, she added.
“In recent years, runoff from a decent snowpack will raise the lake two to three feet and we’ve already surpassed that,” Vernon said. The state expected the snowmelt would improve not only the condition of the lake, but also reservoir conditions in the lake’s watershed, she said. “Many reservoirs are less than 50% capacity due to the extreme drought we’ve endured in recent years. The state anticipates it will be able to capture the runoff in reservoirs and have plenty of water to send downstream to the Great Salt Lake.”
The runoff process, while it benefits the Great Salt Lake and Salt Lake City’s drinking water supply, is violent and difficult to control. The state’s historic snowpack is causing avalanches so big they are blanketing the roads leading up to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, which provide access to Utah’s most popular ski resorts. Last week, the town of Alta issued an interlodge order in Little Cottonwood Canyon, requiring ski resort staff, skiers, and residents to stay inside for five days as the Utah department of transportation performed avalanche mitigation and cleared the roads.
“In a normal, busy winter, I would say we might have serious road events up to 10 times a year. We’re at triple that volume this year,” the Alta town marshal, Mike Morey, told Deseret News. This month, approximately 1,500 people were stuck during a single-day interlodge due to a large avalanche.
“This is the wettest winter we’ve ever experienced,” said John Gleason, director of public relations at the state transportation department. “Avalanche concerns over the past two weeks are about as extreme as they can get,.” Transportation employees working in the canyons for three decades say they have never seen anything like the current avalanche cycle. One crew was temporarily trapped between two slides, requiring them to abandon a buried loader until conditions became safer, so employees could exit, and later dig out their equipment. Avalanches are occurring along the canyon’s 64 slide paths; in some cases, they are sliding in places that haven’t had an avalanche in 30 years. The amount of snowfall this year has made it much easier for these slides to come down, Gleason said.
“Up until this week, the big concern for the canyons has been the tremendous amount of snowfall we have received,” Gleason said. “Now the concern has shifted to warm temperatures and sun that’s melting some of that snowpack, and making it much denser. During the last four days, we’ve seen wet avalanches where the snowpack gets so wet and dense, it comes down the mountainside almost like lava.”
With so much mountain snowpack, Wessler said “the stage is set” for flooding. He said it was too early to tell if the recent snow melt would result in flooding and the transportation department was already stockpiling more than a million sandbags and working with the state’s emergency management division.
“The big concerns probably won’t come for major flooding until it gets into the 80s and 90s,” Gleason said. “When we have a little bit of an extended period of time [with high temperatures], that’s when we’ll see the snowpack in the mountains melting.”
In 1983, another historic year of high snowfall, Salt Lake City flooded so much that water ran through downtown. The city made infrastructure improvements, which Wessler said should mitigate such flooding. The state legislature authorized the construction and operation of pumps in May 1986 that redistribute lake water to the desert to decrease the Great Salt Lake’s water levels. Vernon said she did not expect pumps would need to be used this year. Although the anticipated water increase was needed, she said, more was necessary to secure the lake’s long-term future.
Wessler said it had taken years to get Utah into its current drought and it would take multiple wet winters to get out of it. “One wet winter will not reverse it,” he said. He added that it was hard to know how many wet winters it would take to reverse the drought trend, explaining that it could take anywhere from three to 10, depending on how dry summers are and many other variables.