Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, could dry up completely within five years if water use is not significantly reduced, scientists warn.
“The lake’s ecosystem is not only on the verge of collapse. It’s collapsing, Benjamin Abbott, a professor of ecology at Brigham Young University and lead author of a new report on the lake, told CNN. “The choices we make over the next few months will affect our state and ecosystems throughout the West for decades to come.”
The lake’s levels have been at record lows for two consecutive years. If the water continues to recede at the same rate it has since 2020, “the lake as we know it is on track to disappear in five years,” the report said.
The lake has been shrinking steadily because so much water from the rivers and streams that feed it is being diverted for human use. This is exacerbated by the climate change driven mega-drought that has parched the US West for years, with less rain and snow entering the water system.
The Washington Post noted that more than 70 percent of the state’s water use goes to growing crops to feed livestock.
The Great Salt Lake’s unique ecosystem makes it an important resource for migratory birds. An estimated 10 million birds depend on the lake’s brine and flies. It is also an important breeding ground for pelicans.
The disappearing lake also poses a danger to human health. As salt lakes dry up, their exposed beds become sources of harmful dust that pollutes the air, and the longer the exposed bed remains dry, the more dust is released.
The Brigham Young report includes a number of recommendations to save the lake, including increased federal and state funding for conservation efforts, support for farmers to switch to crops that use less water, and expansion of programs aimed at removing turf and planting native vegetation that need less watering.
“We are in an emergency on deck, and we need farmers, counties, cities, businesses, churches, universities and other organizations to do everything in their power to reduce outdoor water use,” the report said. “We believe our community is uniquely suited to meet this challenge, but only if we implement a unified and cutting-edge rescue.”