ES 767, Wetland Environments with Dr. James Aber, Emporia State University
Group Project, Spring, 2007

The Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve

by Doug Geller, Brian Graves and Larry Kuss



The Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve is an unusual wetland environment as it contains both fresh and salt water components. The Great Salt Lake sits at an average elevation of approximately 4,200 feet above sea level, and has a range of salinities from 5% to 27%. This closed basin saline lake is the largest natural saltwater lake in North America, owing its high salinity to the fact that water flows in but can only leave via evaporation. It is fed primarily by the Bear and Weber rivers from the Wasatch and Uinta mountains. The Great Salt Lake is linked to its freshwater sister Utah Lake to the south by the Jordan River. Located near Layton in Northwestern Utah, these marshes, pools, ponds, sloughs and mudflats supply food for many hundreds of thousands of migrating birds traveling between Canada and Central and South America. The 4,000-acre preserve, found along the eastern shore of the lake between the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area and the Antelope Island State Park Causeway, boasts an award-winning visitors center featuring an open-air pavilion, a one-mile boardwalk trail for birdwatching, and a 30-foot-tall observation tower. Educational displays, art, poetry and related exhibits round out the experience. Maps of the Great Salt Lake is a great website for viewing maps of the region. In the photo below, the Great Salt Lake can be seen in the background.
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The multitude of soil types represented in the preserve produce a high level of vegetative diversity. The preserve is a prime nesting site for the white-faced ibis and is known to accommodate the entire population of the Intermountain West. It also attracts large numbers of snowy plovers, American avocets and black-necked stilts nesting along the shores on saline flats and in the bulrush marshes. Waterfowl common to the area include the redhead, mallard and gadwall which are raised along the shoreline. In a typical year, the lake sees over 800,000 Wilson's phalaropes, one of the two largest populations in the world. 20,000 white pelicans visit each year, and over 1,000 wintering bald eagles are known to frequent the site. The world's largest populations of California gulls and cinnamon teals, along with 60,000 tundra swans and over one million eared grebes also use the Great Salt Lake as their feeding grounds. A comprehensive list of the shorebird species using this location are found at The Great Salt Lake website. The photo below is a view to the southwest from the observation platform.



The region is used for recreation and tourism, sport hunting, mineral extraction and the harvesting of brine shrimp. Each May, the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival is host to thousands of tourists celebrating the arrival of approximately 5 million migrating birds. There are also copper and oil refineries along the edge of the lake. Mineral companies have constructed dikes and evaporation ponds which are used to extract magnesium and sodium chloride from the lake. There is a constant threat of development along the Southern and Eastern shores to meet industrial and urban demands. Agriculture, recreation and tourism are also of great concern to the welfare of this ecosystem. If the plans to construct a highway between the Salt Lake and Davis Counties are carried out, many of the wetlands will be bisected with potentially serious consequences. There is also the possibility that the lake will become a dumping site for toxic waste products, such as soils contaminated with arsenic and lead from a Superfund site.

The use of ATVs and motorcycles near and on the nesting habitats of Snowy Plovers and other species found along the southern shores is a constant threat to the shorebirds that depend on this ecosystem for their survival. As waterfowl hunting is an income producer for the various organizations and duck clubs that cater to the sportsmen, many of the wetlands have been deepened to accommodate waterfowl at the expense of the shorebirds which forage in the mudflats and salt playas near the shore. The photo below is a view to the southeast from the observation platform, with Bountiful Utah in the near background, and North Salt Lake City behind that.

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Presently The Great Salt Lake is under attack from a number of industrial threats. The Magnesium Corporation of America's facility on the western shore of the lake holds the distinction as the nation's number one toxic chemical polluter. The Bingham Copper Mine, the world's largest open-pit copper mine, pollutes the lake with tens of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals annually. On the south side of the lake, Farmington Bay is believed to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in the state as a result of years of sewer discharges. This is a serious problem, taking into consideration that Salt Lake City already uses more water per capita than any other city in the country. These problems are even more critical to the future of this wetland as the lake's water is not recycled. This is a closed system that requires intense effort to restore the site to a healthy state. The photo below is of a male Greenhead/North American Mallard duck.



The Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve was the first preserve in Utah managed by the Nature Conservancy. Over 250 species of birds rely on the Great Salt Lake for nesting and foraging. Along the Pacific Flyway between North and South America, this preserve is a critical link for the four to six million migrating birds that depend on this site, earning it the international designation of Sites of Hemispheric Importance in the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network. This distinction has only been granted to a total of seventeen sites. The Nature Conservancy, along with The Mitigation Commission, has acquired lands and worked with community outreach and planning committees and governmental agencies to protect this unique habitat.

More than 4,000 acres, equaling close to 11 miles of wetland and upland habitat along the lake's eastern shore, have been successfully protected by the efforts of the Nature Conservancy. The implementation of creative strategies has enabled the Conservancy to promote balanced growth while preserving open space and wildlife habitat. Large acquisitions have been made to secure sections of the area for wetland restoration and wildlife protection. In order to preserve the long-term health of this ecosystem, they are also trying to create numeric water quality standards for the Lake. The National Audubon Society is also contributing to the effort by establishing a 2,000 acre preserve on the south shore as well as acquiring additional lands for future preservation.

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Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, meaning it receives inflow from runoff, precipitation and groundwater flow, and water exits the lake only by evaporation. It is the fourth largest terminal lake in the world. The basin encompasses 89,000 km2 including much of Utah and parts of Wyoming and Idaho. Current and forecasted stress on water resources in this semi-arid region is very high. Population in the basin is expected to increase 50% during the next two decades. The Utah Water Resources Department predicts a shortfall of 800,000 acre-ft per year by 2050 for consumptive use in the basin, which will need to be addressed by conservation and new water development. Four drainage basins contribute surface and groundwater flow to the lake:

West Desert. This is the largest and driest of the drainage basins. Average annual precipitation is 11 inches and runoff / groundwater flow to the lake is very low, estimated at about 10,000 to 20,000 acre-feet per year, most of which occurs in early spring. In some years, there is no net contribution to the lake from the west desert. This basin contains the Bonneville Salt Flats, which are the remains of a much larger lake system that existed near the end of the Pleistocene.

Bear River. The Bear River rises in the Uinta Mountains and travels a sinuous 500-mile journey in a large arc, and is the largest tributary to the Great Salt Lake. Runoff is primarily from snowmelt in the mountains. The river is highly developed for water storage and hydropower.

Weber River. The Weber and its tributary the Ogden River are two important tributaries feeding the southeastern part of Great Salt Lake. Flow in this river system is highly regulated. The headwaters of the Weber River have the highest precipitation averages in the Great Salt Lake basin (26 inches annually), most of which falls as snow in the winter.

Utah Lake. This lake is a freshwater body located south of Great Salt Lake and is connected to the lake by the Jordan River. Important tributaries include the American Fork and the Provo River.

The shorelands preserve is located on the eastern shore of the lake, north of the Jordan River outlet and south of the Weber River outlet.

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Great Salt Lake is located on a shallow playa. Consequently, small changes in the water-surface elevation result in relatively large changes in the surface area of the lake. In addition, the lake responds quickly to variations in climate particularly, precipitation and runoff. Historic data on the level of the Great Salt Lake have been collected since 1843. The lake level reached a historic high of about 1283.5 m (4212 ft) in 1873 and again in 1986 and 1987, and a historic low of 1277.5 m (4191 ft) in 1963. The lake is currently at this 1278.5 m level, a manifestation of the current regional drought. The mid 1980s rise of the lake to 1283.6 m caused flooding and widespread damage to the both the built and natural environment. The graph below depicts the long-term hydrograph of Great Salt Lake.


The lake expands into the west desert when its level exceeds an elevation of about 4215 feet, greatly increasing its area. During 1986 and again in 1987, the lake reached an elevation of 4,211.6 feet and had a surface area of about 3,300 square miles. The relation between water-surface elevation and corresponding surface area and volume of the lake is shown on an elevation-area-volume curve, also called a hypsographic curve (from the Greek, hypsos, meaning height).

The hypsographic curve shown below can be used to determine area and total volume of Great Salt Lake (Gilbert and Gunnison Bays) by using the water-surface elevation from the Saltair Boat Harbor USGS gauge located at the south end of Gilbert Bay. The data include diked areas for salt extraction located at the south end of Gilbert Bay.

Hypsographic Curve

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Presently this inland sea is the subject of an intensive long-term study being conducted by the state of Utah, and funded entirely by the brine shrimp industry. Researchers have discovered that the Great Salt Lake is far more complex and vulnerable than was previously thought. This lake is of special interest to the exporters of brine shrimp eggs, which are harvested by the billions and shipped to Asia where they are hatched and used as food for prawns. They are obviously trying to protect a lucrative industry for themselves with the added benefit of helping to preserve a unique environment for the rest of the world. The photo below is of a pair of Mallard ducks.


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The Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve is not only unique for its physical characteristics, but also for the multitude of flora and fauna it supports. Environments such as this are limited in number, and continuously disappearing from this Earth. It is hoped that, with public support as well as that of local industry, this irreplaceable ecosystem might be preserved for future generations.


The Nature Conservancy-Places We Protect;

The Davis Area Convention and Visitors Bureau-Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve;

The Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission-GSL Shorelands Preserve;

The Great Salt Lake Wetlands/Bear River National Wildlife Refuge Tour-Utah;

The Great Salt Lake;

The High Country Great Salt Lake Mystery;

Utah News-Protecting Utah's Open Spaces;,1249,575041009,00.html

The Great Salt Lake-Haven For Birds;

The George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation-Investing in Preservation and Conservation;

Utah Wildlife-The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival;

About Tesoro-Social Responsibility-Salt Lake City Refinery;

The Great Salt Lake-Maps of the Great Salt Lake;

The Utah Water Resources Department;

All Photos by Brian Graves

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