Bad News on Great Salt Lake: 'This Is a Crisis'

Researchers say Utah lake could vanish in 5 years if excess water consumption isn't remedied
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 9, 2023 12:21 PM CST
Bad News on Great Salt Lake: 'This Is a Crisis'
A park ranger for Utah's Department of Natural Resources walks across reeflike structures called microbialites, exposed by receding waters at the Great Salt Lake, on Sept. 28.   (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Since 2020, Utah's Great Salt Lake has lost about 40 billion gallons of water per year, a consequence of the West's megadrought and too much water consumption. Researchers say that stat shouldn't be ignored: If remedies aren't made, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere "is on track to disappear in five years," per a new report out of Brigham Young University published this week. The report on this "unprecedented danger" notes that water usage has caused the lake to dwindle to only 37% of its past volume, at a much quicker rate than scientists had predicted.

"This is a crisis," ecologist Ben Abbott, the study's lead author, tells the Washington Post. "The ecosystem is on life support, [and] we need to have this emergency intervention to make sure it doesn't disappear." The report notes that the collapse of the lake—which, along with its wetlands, has created thousands of local jobs, served as a habitat for millions of migratory birds, and offered up minerals for Utah industry—could lead to "immense damage to Utah's public health, environment, and economy." The lake has also functioned as a natural suppressant of toxic dust, as the lake bed contains high levels of arsenic, mercury, and other dangerous substances.

"We have this potential environmental nuclear bomb that's going to go off if we don't take some pretty dramatic action," Joel Ferry, the acting executive director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, told the New York Times earlier this year. The disappearance of the lake could even affect local weather, disrupting the rain-snow cycle that keeps Utah's tourist-friendly ski slopes humming. Scientists point to climate change, agriculture, and population growth as a few of the factors behind both the lake's shrinkage and the increased water consumption.

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"We are underestimating the consequences of losing the lake," the report notes, adding that "most Utahns do not realize the urgency of this crisis." What it sees as the only solution: water conservation, which will require the help of every manager in charge of water usage, as well as farmers and the general population, per USA Today. A $40 million trust to assist these efforts, approved last year by Utah's Legislature, is a start, along with other initiatives over the long haul, but it isn't enough in the moment. Among other immediate responses, the report suggests Gov. Spencer Cox give the OK for emergency reservoir releases to bring the lake's water levels up ASAP—which would mean up to a 50% reduction in water usage across the state. Much more here. (More Great Salt Lake stories.)

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