Scientists have warned that the Great Salt Lake is about to disappear in five years


A dire new report warns that without significant reductions in water consumption, Utah’s Great Salt Lake is on track to disappear within five years, endangering ecosystems and exposing millions of people to toxic dust from the drying lake bed.

The report, led by researchers at Brigham Young University and published this week, found that unsustainable water use has reduced the lake’s size to just 37 percent of its previous size. the West Continuous massive drought – Crisis exacerbated by Climate change Its decline has accelerated to much faster rates than scientists expected.

But scientists said current conservation measures are grossly insufficient to replace the nearly 40 billion gallons of water the lake has lost annually since 2020.

The report calls for Utah and neighboring states to reduce water consumption by one-third to one-half, allowing 2.5 million acres of water from streams and rivers to flow directly into the lake over the next two years. Otherwise, the Great Salt Lake is headed for irreversible collapse.

“This is a crisis,” said Ben Abbott, a Brigham Young University ecologist and lead author of the report. An ecosystem that supports life, [and] We need this emergency intervention to make sure it doesn’t go away.”

‘Undoubtedly a health hazard’

Scientists and officials have long known that the water in the Salt Lake watershed is large – More water is guaranteed to individuals and businesses compared to rain and snow every year.

Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of the state’s water use—and much of it will increase hay and alfalfa to feed the cattle. Another 9 percent is taken up by mineral extraction. Cities use another 9 percent to power plants and irrigate lawns.

There are so many claims on the state’s rivers and creeks that by the time you reach Salt Lake, there is very little water left.

Over the past three years, the report says, the lake has received less than a third of its normal stream flow because much of the water has been diverted for other purposes. In 2022, its surface has sunk to an A level low score10 feet below what is considered the minimum health level.

As the freshwater flow decreased, the lake became so salty that it became toxic even to the saltwater shrimp and flies that evolved to live there, Abbott said. This, in turn, endangers the 10 million birds that depend on the lake for rest as they migrate across the continent each year.

Vanishing Lake may short circuit weather system That swirls rain and snow from the lake to the mountains and back again, paving the way for ski slopes in Utah. He. She Threatens A billion-dollar industry that extracts magnesium, lithium, and other critical metals from brine.

It also exposed more than 800 square miles of sediment filled with arsenic, mercury and other hazardous substances, which could be picked up by winds and blown into the lungs of the roughly 2.5 million people who live near the lake’s shore.

“Nanoparticles of dust can cause significant harm if they come from a dried-up lake bottom as much as from an exhaust pipe or chimney,” said Brian Muench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. He called the lake’s shrinkage “a real, documented and indisputable health hazard”.

Dry salt lakes are hotspots of dangerous air pollution. Nearly a century after Lake Owens in southern California was drained to provide water for Los Angeles County in the 1920s, it is still the largest source of hazardous dust in the country, according to the USGS. pollution was associated with High rates of asthma, heart and lung diseases, and premature mortality.

Kevin Berry, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah who studies pollution from Lake receding, he said that about 90 percent of the lake bottom is protected by a thin crust of salt that prevents dust from escaping. But the longer the lake dries, the more that crust erodes, exposing more dangerous sediments to the air.

“You see this wall of dust coming up from the lake, and it reduces the horizontal visibility sometimes to less than a mile,” Perry said. The effect may only last for two hours at a time, he said, but the consequences can be profound.

Mapping the location and height of the dust hotspots, Perry and other researchers said, the results show that the problem is unlikely to fade anytime soon. Perry said the lake would need to rise about 14 feet to cover 80 percent of the current hotspots, or about 10 feet to submerge half of it.

Even the researchers were surprised, Abbott said, by the rapid decline of the Great Salt Lake. Most scientific models predicted that shrinkage would slow as the lake got smaller and more salty, because salt water evaporates less easily than fresh water.

But the report said human-caused climate change, mostly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, has raised average temperatures in northern Utah by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 20th century and made the region more vulnerable to drought. studies Suggest This warming accounts for about 9 percent of the decrease in flows into the lake. satellite surveys They also show a significant decrease in the groundwater beneath the lake, as persistent drought is depleting the aquifers in the area.

If humans weren’t using so much water, Abbott said, the lake might be able to withstand these changes in climate. But the combined stress of drought and overconsumption proves to be more than he can handle.

Utahs are becoming increasingly aware of the urgency of the lake’s decline, said Candice Hesniager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. Last year, the Utah legislature passed several bills aimed at conservation, including a $40 million trust fund aimed at helping the ailing lake. Gov. Spencer Cox (R) recently proposed another massive infusion of funding for water management and conservation.

“We don’t have the luxury of having one solution,” Hasenyager said, but curbing water demand is essential. “We live in a desert, in one of the driest states in the country, and we need to reduce the amount of water we use.”

However, recent efforts have not kept pace with the accelerating crisis. Abbott and his colleagues found that new conservation laws in Utah increased streamflow into the Great Salt Lake by less than 100,000 acres in 2022—a fraction of the 2.5 million acre increase needed to return the lake to a healthy minimum.

“Among lawmakers and policymakers, there is still a very prevalent narrative about, ‘Let’s put conservation measures in place so that over the next two decades Salt Lake can recover,’” Abbott said. “But we don’t have that time.”

“This is not business as usual,” he added. “This is an emergency rescue plan.”

The new report, drafted by more than 30 scientists from 11 universities, advocacy groups and other research institutions, recommends that Cox authorize emergency releases from Utah’s reservoirs to bring the lake to a safe level within the next two years.

This would require up to 50 percent of the amount of water the state uses each year, requiring investment from federal agencies all the way to local governments, church leaders, and community groups.

For decades, Abbott said, officials have prioritized human uses for all the water that flows through the Salt Lake watershed.

Until last year, the lake itself was not considered a legitimate recipient of any water that fell in the area. If a farmer chooses not to use some of his shares, allowing water to flow back into the lake and surrounding ecosystem, he could risk losing his water rights in the future.

“We have to move from thinking of nature as a commodity, as a natural resource, to what we’ve learned over the past 50 years in ecology, and what indigenous cultures have always known,” said Abbott. “Humans depend on the environment. … We have to think, ‘What does a lake need to be healthy?’ And manage our water use with what is left.”

This year’s weather gave Utah an excellent opportunity to, in Abbott’s words, “put the lake in first place.” After a series of December storms, the state is already starting to snow 170 percent from normal January levels. If this snow and rain continue through the rest of the winter, it would enable the state to allocate millions of acres of water to the lake without making such drastic reductions in consumption.

“I’m generally optimistic,” says Hasenyager, director of water resources. “I don’t think we’re past the point of no return – just yet.”

Leave a Comment