Lakes in the Bonneville basin have fluctuated dramatically in response to changes in rainfall, temperature, and drainage diversion during the Quaternary. We analyzed tufas and shells from shorelines of known ages in order to develop a relation between 87Sr/86Sr ratio of carbonates and lake level, which then can be used as a basis for constraining lake level from similar analyses on carbonates in cores. Carbonates from the late Quaternary shorelines yield the following average 87Sr/86Sr ratios: 0.71173 for the Stansbury shoreline (22–20 14C ka; 1350 m), 0.71153 for the Bonneville shoreline (15.5–14.5 14C ka; 1550 m), 0.71175 for the Provo shoreline (14.4–14.0 14C ka; 1450 m), 0.71244 for the Gilbert shoreline (∼10.3–10.9 14C ka; 1300 m), and 0.71469 for the modern Great Salt Lake (1280 m). These analyses show that the 87Sr/86Sr ratio of lacustrine carbonates changes substantially at low- to mid-lake levels but is invariant at mid- to high-lake levels.
Sr-isotope mixing models of Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville paleolake system were constructed to explain these variations in 87Sr/86Sr ratios with change in lake level. Our model of the Bonneville system produced a 87Sr/86Sr ratio of 0.71193, very close to the observed ratios from high-shoreline tufa and shell. The model verifies that the integration of the southern Sevier and Beaver rivers with the Bear and others rivers in the north is responsible for the lower 87Sr/86Sr ratios in Lake Bonneville compared to the modern Great Salt Lake. We also modeled the 87Sr/86Sr ratio of Lake Bonneville with the upper Bear River diverted into the Snake River basin and obtained an 87Sr/86Sr ratio of 0.71414. Coincidentally, this ratio is close to the observed ratio for Great Salt Lake of 0.71469. This means that 87Sr/86Sr ratios of >0.714 for carbonate can be produced by climatically induced low-lake conditions or by diversion of the upper Bear River out of the Bonneville basin. This model result also demonstrates that the upper Bear River had to be flowing into the Bonneville basin during highstands of other late Quaternary lake cycles: carbonates from the Little Valley (130–160 ka) and Cutler Dam (59 ± 5 ka) lake cycles returned 87Sr/86Sr ratios of 0.71166 and 0.71207, respectively, and are too low to be produced by a lake without the upper Bear River input.