BYU Report – Great Salt Lake is facing unprecedented danger. “Without a dramatic increase in water flow to the lake in 2023 and 2024, its disappearance could cause immense damage to Utah’s public health, environment, and economy. This briefing provides background and recommends emergency measures. The choices we make over the next few months will affect our state and ecosystems throughout the West for decades to come.
1. Great Salt Lake is a keystone ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere. The lake and its wetlands provide minerals for Utah’s industries, thousands of local jobs, and habitat for 10 million migratory birds. Fertilizer and brine shrimp from the lake feed millions of people worldwide. The lake provides $2.5 billion in direct economic activity yearly7–10 , as well as increasing precipitation, suppressing toxic dust, and supporting 80% of Utah’s wetlands.
2. Excessive water use is destroying Great Salt Lake. At 19 feet below its average natural level since 1850, the lake is in uncharted territory. It has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its surface area. Our unsustainable water use is desiccating habitat, exposing toxic dust, and driving salinity to levels incompatible with the lake’s food webs. The lake’s drop has accelerated since 2020, with an average deficit of 1.2 million acre-feet per year. If this loss rate continues, the lake as we know it is on track to disappear in five years.
3. We are underestimating the consequences of losing the lake. Despite encouraging growth in legislative action and public awareness, most Utahns do not realize the urgency of this crisis. Examples from around the world show that saline lake loss triggers a long-term cycle of environmental, health, and economic suffering. Without a coordinated rescue, we can expect widespread air and water pollution, numerous Endangered Species Act listings, and declines in agriculture, industry, and overall quality of life.
4. The lake needs an additional million acre-feet per year to reverse its decline. This would increase average streamflow to ~2.5 million acre-feet per year, beginning a gradual refilling. Depending on future weather conditions, achieving this level of flow will require cutting consumptive water use in the Great Salt Lake watershed by a third to a half. Recent efforts have returned less than 0.1 million acre-feet per year to the lake, with most conserved water held in reservoirs or delivered to other users rather than released to the lake.
5. Water conservation is the way. While water augmentation is often discussed (pipelines, cloud seeding, new reservoirs, and groundwater extraction, etc.), conservation is the only way to provide adequate water in time to save Great Salt Lake. Conservation is also the most cost effective and resilient response, and there are successful examples throughout the region. Ensuring financial, legislative, and technical support for conservation will pay huge dividends during this crisis and for decades to come…”
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