WRA eared grebe

Great Salt Lake – three to five times saltier than the ocean – is a national icon, providing essential habitat to 7.5 million birds each year and enriching residents and visitors alike who cherish the Lake for its recreational opportunities and beautiful vistas. Lying at the base of Utah’s most densely populated area, Great Salt Lake is continually under threat from human activity and drought.

The amazing abundance of bird life at Great Salt Lake has earned the Lake’s designation as a “Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve.” Birds of regional, national and international significance are drawn to its 1,700 square miles of various water environments, remote islands and shorelines, and about 400,000 acres of wetlands. Every year 7.5 million birds consisting of 257 different species rely on Great Salt Lake to nest, breed and feast during migrations of thousands of miles. The diverse water environments also are excellent habitats for innumerable plants and other wildlife. The Lake also generates billions of dollars each year in economic activity, such as duck hunting, bird watching, and brine shrimp harvesting.

Western Resource Advocates eared grebes shrimp great salt lake

A brine shrimp boat on Great Salt Lake. Image courtesy of R. Nial Bradshaw.

Working on behalf of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, Western Resource Advocates recently helped facilitate an agreement that will protect the Eared Grebe population on Great Salt Lake.  Every year, Great Salt Lake is home to more than 2.5 million Eared Grebes—at times over half the North American population.  These birds depend on brine shrimp as a key source of food prior to migration to South America. They must double their body weight in preparation for their migration south (each Eared Grebe consumes about 30,000 brine shrimp per day).

The agreement centered around protecting this critical food source of brine shrimp in the South Arm of Great Salt Lake. As part of a bridge-construction project, the Union Pacific railroad was scheduled to create a breach in the railroad causeway that separates the South Arm and North Arm. The railroad causeway cuts off the North Arm from any freshwater inflows and has done so since it was built in 1959. While there were two culverts in the causeway that connected the two arms, several years ago, the US Army Corps of Engineers allowed the railroad to close the culverts due to safety concerns, on the condition that the railroad construct a bridge with an opening equal to the two culverts combined.

Western Resource Advocates eared grebes shrimp great salt lake

The railroad causeway’s effect on the North Arm of Great Salt Lake can be seen in this aerial photo. The North Arm looks pink due to the color of salt-loving microbes. Image courtesy of NASA.

Since the closure of the culverts, and because the South Arm receives virtually all of the inflow into Great Salt Lake, the South Arm is currently 3.5’ higher than the North Arm.  With the bridge now constructed, the railroad was poised to open the breach, lowering water levels in the South Arm over 1.5’ within a matter of days, and raising salinity levels beyond the tolerance of many of the Lake’s juvenile brine shrimp population. Without this vital food source, millions of Eared Grebes would be potentially stranded. The breach would also have lowered water levels in the Lake to the point where search and rescue boats would be stranded in the harbor.

The agreement facilitated by the WRA Utah Office involved the Army Corps of Engineers, the Utah Division of Water Quality, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fires and State Lands, mineral companies operating on Great Salt Lake and the brine shrimp cooperative. The agreement successfully pushed back the date of the breach to the end of the year, after the date when inflows from the Bear River begin again (the flows cease to exist in summer because of irrigation), after the overwintering brine shrimp population has matured sufficiently to survive the increase in salinity level, and after the millions of Eared Grebes have begun their journey to their wintering grounds.

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