Without dramatic cuts to water use, Utah’s Great Salt Lake could vanish within five years, a new report warns, threatening ecosystems and exposing millions of people to toxic dust from the drying lake bed.
The report, compiled by researchers at Brigham Young University and released this week, found that unsustainable water use had reduced the lake to just 37 percent of its previous volume. The ongoing mega-drought in the West – a crisis exacerbated by climate change – has accelerated its decline to a rate much faster than scientists predicted.
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However, current conservation measures are critically insufficient to replace the approximately 40 billion gallons of water the lake has been losing annually since 2020, researchers said.
The report calls on Utah and neighboring states to reduce their water use 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 several years. Otherwise, it was written, the Great Salt Lake is headed for irreversible collapse.
“This is a crisis,” said Ben Abbott, an ecologist at Brigham Young University and lead author of the report. “The ecosystem is kept alive, [and] we need to have this emergency intervention to make sure it doesn’t go away.”
Scientists and officials have long recognized that water in the Great Salt Lake watershed is overallocated – people and businesses have been guaranteed more water than falls in the form of rain and snow each year.
Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of the state’s water use – most of it goes to growing hay and alfalfa for animal feed. Another 9 percent goes to mineral extraction. Cities use another 9 percent to run power plants and irrigate lawns.
There are so many claims to the state’s rivers and streams that there is very little water left by the time they reach the Great Salt Lake.
The report says the lake has received less than a third of its normal flow over the past three years because so much water has been diverted to other uses. In 2022, its surface fell to a record low, 10 feet below what is considered to be a minimum healthy level.
With less freshwater influx, the lake has become so salty that it becomes toxic even to the native brine shrimp and flies that have evolved to live there, Abbott said. This in turn threatens the 10 million birds that rely on the lake as a stopover as they migrate across the continent each year.
The disappearing lake could short out the weather system that moves rain and snow from the lake to the mountains and back again, depriving Utah’s bunk ski slopes. It threatens a billion-dollar industry extracting magnesium, lithium and other critical minerals from the brine.
It also uncovered more than 800 square miles of sediment filled with arsenic, mercury and other hazardous substances that can be carried by the wind and blown into the lungs of the approximately 2.5 million people living near the lake’s shores.
“Dust nanoparticles can do just as much damage if they come from a dry lake bed as they do from an exhaust pipe or chimney,” said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. He called the shrinking of the lake “a real, documented, undisputed health threat.”
Dry salt lakes are hotspots of dangerous air pollution. Nearly a century after Southern California’s Owens Lake was drained to supply water to Los Angeles County in the 1920s, it was still the largest source of hazardous dust in the country, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Pollution has been linked to high rates of asthma, heart and lung disease, and premature death.
Kevin Perry, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah who studies pollution from the receding lake, said about 90 percent of the lake bed is protected by a thin crust of salt that prevents dust from escaping. But the longer the lake stays dry, the more the crust will erode, exposing more dangerous deposits in the air.
“You see this wall of dust coming down from the lake that sometimes reduces horizontal visibility to less than a mile,” Perry said. He said the impact could only last a few hours, but the consequences could be profound.
He said Perry and other researchers have mapped the location and height of dust hotspots, and the results show the problem is unlikely to go away any time soon. Perry said the lake would need to rise about 14 feet to cover 80 percent of the current hot spots, or about 10 feet to submerge half of them.
Abbott said even researchers were surprised at the rapid rate of decline of the Great Salt Lake. Most scientific models predicted that shrinkage would be slower as the lake became smaller and saltier, as salt water evaporates more slowly than fresh water.
But man-made climate change, driven mainly by burning fossil fuels, has raised average temperatures in northern Utah by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 20th century and made the region more drought-prone, the report said. Research suggests that this warming accounts for about 9 percent of the decline in stream flow into the lake. Satellite studies also show significant drops in groundwater below the lake as the ongoing drought depletes the region’s aquifers.
Abbott said that if people didn’t use so much water, the lake could withstand these climate changes. But the combined pressures of drought and overconsumption are proving to be more than he can take.
Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Department of Water Resources, said Utahn residents are becoming increasingly aware of the urgency of the lake’s decline. Last year, the Utah legislature passed numerous laws to protect it, including a $40 million trust fund to help the ailing lake. Governor Spencer Cox (R) recently proposed another massive injection of funds for water management and conservation.
“We don’t have the luxury of having a single solution,” but reducing water demand is essential, Hasenyager said. “We live in the 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 up with the accelerating crisis. Abbott and colleagues found that Utah’s new conservation laws increased stream flow to the Great Salt Lake by less than 100,000 acre feet in 2022.
“There is still a very common narrative among legislators and policy makers of ‘let’s put in place conservation measures so that the Great Salt Lake can recover over the next few decades,’ Abbott said. “But we don’t have that time.”
“This is no ordinary business,” he added. “This is a rescue plan.”
A new report by more than 30 scientists from 11 universities, advocacy groups and other research institutions recommends that Cox authorize emergency releases from reservoirs in Utah to bring the lake to safe levels over the next two years.
This would require up to a 50 percent reduction in the amount of water the state uses each year, requiring investment from federal agencies, local governments, church leaders, and community groups.
Abbott said for decades officials have prioritized the uses of all the water that flows through the Great Salt Lake watershed.
Until last year, the lake itself wasn’t even considered the rightful recipient of any water that fell in the region. If the farmer decides not to use part of his share, allowing the water to drain into the lake and the surrounding ecosystem, he risks losing water rights in the future.
“We need to move from thinking about nature as a commodity, as a natural resource, to what we’ve learned in ecology over the last 50 years and what indigenous cultures have always known,” Abbott said. “People are addicted to the environment… We need to think about what a lake needs to be healthy?” and manage our water use with what’s left over.”
This year’s weather gave Utah the perfect opportunity to, Abbott says, “put the lake first.” After a series of December storms, snow cover in the state has already reached 170 percent of January’s normal level. If the snow continues and rainfall continues for the rest of the winter, the state will be able to set aside millions of acres of water for the lake without such drastic cuts in consumption.
“I’m generally optimistic,” said Hasenyager, director of water resources. “I don’t think we’ve passed the point of no return – yet.”
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