Great Salt Lake and the New Normal of Drought

Great Salt LakeBrad Plumer wrote a disconcerting article over at Vox, NASA Images Show Utah’s Great Salt Lake Shrinking Dramatically. Over the last five years, Farmington Bay, which leads into the Great Salt Lake, has been reduced to one-quarter of its previous size. It’s basically just a river now. And this has huge environmental and economic ramifications.

(This is something that the modern world has forgotten. We are so focused on quarterly profits that we don’t see that most of the time economic and environmental interests go hand in hand. Interestingly, you would think that conservative economists would be most interested in this. But in general, they aren’t. Sure, they’re talk of externalities. But they aren’t much interested in it, because they are committed to having little government interference in the market. And dealing with externalities requires the government. Or business people who are enlightened — rarer than unicorns.)

No Mention of Global Warming

Brad Plumer is the guy at Vox who normally writes about global warming. But in this article, he didn’t mention the issue at all. Instead, he talked about the drought and the diversion of water. Currently 40 percent of all the river water flowing into the Great Salt Lake is diverted. Of course, that hasn’t changed. The real issue is the drought. And my question is: why the drought?

Now I get why Plumer didn’t mention global warming. There is no way to know if the current drought is due to global warming. But I think it is a mistake to get too caught up in what you can know for certain. For one thing, it just plays into the the denial industry. And as I have said many times before, the biggest issue with global warming is rainfall, not temperature.

Temperature-Rainfall Correlations

There has been a lot of work looking at temperature and rainfall correlation. My first year in graduate school, I shared a cubical wall with a young Chinese student. He looked at the last century of data for the United States. And it was frightening. The northeast had a positive correlation: more rainfall with higher temperatures. But everywhere else it was less rainfall with higher temperatures. And that was especially true out here in the west.

Note that just because there has been a correlation in the past, that doesn’t mean that global warming will cause the same effect. But as you may have noticed, we’ve been seeing drought in the west and very wet winters in the northeast. And it makes sense. So far this season in northern California, we’ve seen good rainfall. Most people are very hopeful. I’m not. I fully expect us to be below normal rainfall at the end of the season. That’s because I think “normal” rainfall is now a lot lower than it used to be.

Death of the Great Salt Lake?

So I think things are going to be very bad for the Great Salt Lake. They can stop diverting water and that will help. But my working theory is that they aren’t in the middle of a drought. They are just getting used to the new normal. And that new normal may be that there is no Great Salt Lake. It will be like the Owens Lake. But that one dried up due to the actions of the people who lived there. If the Great Salt Lake dries up, the culpability will be far broader.

2 thoughts on “Great Salt Lake and the New Normal of Drought

  1. A writer whose name I don’t recall had a good baseball analogy for weather events and global warming. We don’t know which of Barry Bonds’s home runs were made possible by steroids. But we know some of them were. Global warming is weather on steroids. Nobody can say for certain that this storm or that heat wave wouldn’t have happened without global warming. We can say that there’s going to be a rise in formerly rare weather events. If you turn Bruce Banner into the Hulk, he will hit more homers.

    I hope Salt Lake City stays habitable. So much work went into building it. And the scenery is amazing.

    • I once heard athletes referred to as machines. Bonds, for example, is a machine that gets on base 30 percent of the time, for example. So the steroids increased that percent by some amount. I have a lot of sympathy for him and all the other players. What I don’t have sympathy for is all the people who made gobs of money (from owners down to sports writers) who now claim moral outrage. Is there any doubt but that Bonds would be in the Hall of Fame if steroids had never been invented? Of course, I would argue that Bonds growing up in the environment that he did (Mays is his godfather, right?) had far more of an effect on his ability than steroids. But that’s an issue that few Americans want to talk about.

      Great analogy!

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