How Do Changes to the Railroad Causeway in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Affect Water and Salt Flow?
Managing terminal lake elevation and salinity are emerging problems worldwide. We contribute to terminal lake management research by quantitatively assessing water and salt flow for Utah’s Great Salt Lake. In 1959, Union Pacific Railroad constructed a rock-filled causeway across the Great Salt Lake, separating the lake into a north and south arm. Flow between the two arms was limited to two 4.6 meter wide rectangular culverts installed during construction, an 88 meter opening (referred to locally as a breach) installed in 1984, and the semi porous material of the causeway. A salinity gradient developed between the two arms of the lake over time because the south arm receives approximately 95% of the incoming streamflow entering Great Salt Lake. The north arm is often at, or near, salinity saturation, averaging 317 g/L since 1966, while the south is considerably less saline, averaging 142 g/L since 1966. Ecological and industrial uses of the lake are dependent on long-term salinity remaining within physiological and economic thresholds, although optimal salinity varies for the ecosystem and between diverse stakeholders. In 2013, Union Pacific Railroad closed causeway culverts amid structural safety concerns and proposed to replace them with a bridge, offering four different bridge designs. As of summer 2015, no bridge design has been decided upon. We investigated the effect that each of the proposed bridge designs would have on north and south arm Great Salt Lake elevation and salinity by updating and applying US Geological Survey’s Great Salt Lake Fortran Model. Overall, we found that salinity is sensitive to bridge size and depth, with larger designs increasing salinity in the south arm and decreasing salinity in the north arm. This research illustrates that flow modifications within terminal lakes cannot be separated from lake salinity, ecology, management, and economic uses.