SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A steady drop in the Western Hemisphere's largest saltwater lake, drained by decades of water consumption, is affecting millions of migratory birds, and could bring major consequences for Utah tourism, industry and residents.
The Great Salt Lake, a remnant of the Glacial Age's Lake Bonneville, has reached near record-low levels, a recent study shows, exposing half of the natural lake's bed.
State university and community college faculty, joined by Division of Wildlife Resources and Water Resources workers, published "Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front" in April this year.
The white paper cites droughts and floods as short-term factors to the decline, but water management schemes, including consumption and mineral extraction are the major culprits in the 48 percent decline of the water level.
Shorebirds, Bathers and Sea Monkeys
The Great Salt Lake, a swath of rich blue and bright green water bordered by vast, pale salt flats to the west, spans nearly 1,700 square miles.
The nation's largest lake outside of the Great Lakes, it is the fourth-largest terminal lake worldwide, and once blanketed 20,000 square miles of present-day Utah, Nevada and Idaho.
Mormon pioneers, traveling west from the Great Plains after the assassination of Joseph Smith, settled Salt Lake City, 16 miles from the lake, in 1847.
Two decades later, in 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads joined rails in the nation's first transcontinental railroad, just north of the Great Salt lake.
By 1870, two recreational resorts had been built on the saline-rich shores.
Saltair, an amusement park and haven for swimmers, was launched by the Mormon Church in 1893, and connected to the city by railroad.
Mormon businessmen purchased Saltair, billed a "Coney Island of the West," in 1906.
An estimated 500,000 people visited the attraction in the early 1920s, but it burned to the ground in 1925 and was rebuilt the following year.
The Great Depression, maintenance costs and receding lake levels, among other challenges, led to the ultimate abandonment of Saltair and another devastating fire, in 1970.
Rebuilt again, now it serves as a music venue — nearly 200 yards from the south shore of the lake.
Called the "most important waterfowl hotspot" in the Intermountain West by conservation group Ducks Unlimited, the shallow waters of Farmington Bay and Bear River Bay, to the lake's east and north, provide nesting areas and food for millions of waterfowl.
Three million to four million birds of 35 species use the lake for nesting, resting and staging each year.
Eared grebes, ruddy ducks, mallards and Canada geese are common, though the enormous flocks that explorer John Fremont once observed have dwindled.
"The waterfowl made a noise like thunder," Fremont wrote in 1843, after visiting the lake near the Bear River Refuge, "as the whole scene was animated with waterfowl."
And there's money to be had in the lake, 75 miles long and just over 40 miles wide.
Economic analysis in 2012 by Bioeconomics tagged the annual value of the Great Salt Lake at $1.32 billion, for recreation, mineral extraction and its $57 million annual brine shrimp industry.
Brine shrimp eggs, or cysts, are harvested from the lake and canned, shipped and hatched globally to feed baby shrimp.