Water Quality in the Great Salt Lake Basins

Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, 1998–2001


Circular 1236


By Kidd M. Waddell, Steven J. Gerner, Susan A. Thiros, Elise M. Giddings, Robert L. Baskin, Jay R. Cederberg, and Christine M. Albano


This circular is available as a pdf.


This report contains the major findings of a 1998–2001 assessment of water quality in the Great Salt Lake Basins. It is one of a series of reports by the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program that present major findings in 51 major river basins and aquifer systems across the Nation.


In these reports, water quality is discussed in terms of local, State, and regional issues. Conditions in a particular basin or aquifer system are compared to conditions found elsewhere and to selected national benchmarks, such as those for drinking-water quality and the protection of aquatic organisms.


This report is intended for individuals working with water-resource issues in Federal, State, or local agencies, universities, public interest groups, or in the private sector. The information will be useful in addressing a number of current issues, such as the effects of agricultural and urban land use on water quality, human health, drinking water, source-water protection, hypoxia and excessive growth of algae and plants, pesticide registration, and monitoring and sampling strategies. This report is also for individuals who wish to know more about the quality of streams and ground water in areas near where they live, and how that water quality compares to water quality in other areas across the Nation.


The water-quality conditions in the Great Salt Lake Basins summarized in this report are discussed in detail in other reports that can be accessed at Detailed technical information, data and analyses, collection and analytical methodology, models, graphs, and maps that support the findings presented in this report in addition to reports in this series from other basins can be accessed at the national NAWQA Web site


National Water-Quality Assessment Program

What kind of water-quality information does the NAWQA Program provide?

Introduction to this Report

Summary of Major Findings

Stream and River Highlights

Ground-Water Highlights

Introduction to the Great Salt Lake Basins

Major Findings

Water development affects quantity and quality of water resources

Streamflow regulation, such as that in the Bear River Basin, alters daily and seasonal flows

Reductions in water quantity also affect water quality in streams

Fish communities in urban streams respond to changes in water quantity

Pumping likely affects the distribution of dissolved solids in the basin-fill aquifer in Salt Lake Valley

Land use influences water quality and aquatic community health

Undeveloped basins show minimal degradation of water quality and biological communities

Phosphorus and nitrogen levels are elevated in streams draining agricultural and urban areas

Nitrate levels generally are low in the basin-fill aquifers

Urban storm runoff affects stream chemistry and temperature

Elevated levels of pesticides are most common in urban streams

VOCs are common in urban streams

Pesticides and VOCs are detected in basin-fill aquifers underlying all types of land use

VOCs and pesticides commonly are detected in shallow ground water and in the basin-fill aquifer used for public supply in Salt Lake Valley

Surface-water contaminants and aquatic communities change as watersheds become urbanized

PAH levels are elevated in streambed sediment in urban basins and in Farmington Bay

Lead concentrations have decreased in Farmington Bay sediments since the 1980s

DDT, PCBs, and other organochlorine compounds occur more commonly in fish than in sediment in area streams

Increased urban land use has altered invertebrate and algal communities

Elevated concentrations of trace elements in sediment and water are related to natural sources and past mining activities

Minerals in rocks are sources of arsenic and radon in ground water

Past mining activities contribute to elevated levels of trace elements in sediment and water

Increases in levels of trace elements in sediment since the mid-19th century are related to smelter emissions

Study Unit Design


References Cited

Appendix—Water Quality Data from the Great Salt Lake Basins in a National Context

Points of Contact and Additional Information


The companion Web site for NAWQA summary reports:


Great Salt Lake Basins contact and Web site:

USGS State Representative

U.S. Geological Survey

Water Resources Discipline

2329 Orton Circle
Salt Lake City, Utah 84119

National NAWQA Program:

Chief, NAWQA Program
U.S. Geological Survey
Water Resources Discipline
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, M.S. 413
Reston, VA 20192


For sale by


U.S. Geological Survey,

Information Services
Box 25286, Denver Federal Center
Denver, CO 80225


For more information about the USGS and its products:

Telephone: 1-888-ASK-USGS
World Wide Web:


The full report is available in pdf format and is 16.3 MB in size.


If you have Adobe® Acrobat® or Adobe® Acrobat® Reader® installed on your computer, you may view and print the PDF version of this report. Acrobat Reader, is a free download it from Adobe Systems, Inc.  Users with disabilities can view information concerning accessibility at


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