Authors of a new report on the Great Salt Lake do not mince words — without major intervention, they say, the Great Salt Lake could disappear within five years.
Coauthored by Utah State University Department of Watershed Science’s Patrick Belmont and Janice Brahney in cooperation with 30 other water experts and advocates, the report calls for immediate legislative action to increase water flow to the lake, especially since Utah’s snowpack currently is above average in the midst of the ongoing 20-year drought.
“This water year is a crucial opportunity to mitigate ongoing damage to the Great Salt Lake ecosystem,” Belmont said. “There is still time to turn this around, but we need the next steps to be decisive and well coordinated.”
Now 19 feet below average level, the lake has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its surface area from averages tracked since 1850. Climate change and increasing human uses have accelerated water losses since 2020, with an average deficit of 1.2 million acre-feet per year — creating extreme habitat loss for native species, exposing toxic dust, and driving salinity levels in the water to concentrations that will eventually defeat even the salt-tolerant species now living in the ecosystem.
“The lake’s disappearance could cause immense damage to Utah’s public health, environment, and economy,” the authors wrote in the report. “The choices we make over the next few months will affect our state and ecosystems throughout the West for decades to come.”
The report is receiving significant national media attention and has struck a chord with local managers, state lawmakers and the national audience watching the fate of the lake unfold as a bellwether for what may happen to other large river basins experiencing a hotter and drier climate.
Many lakes across the West are due for more evaporation, more demand for water, and to become more stressed under the changing climate, Belmont said. What’s happening in the Great Salt Lake is a case study for what could become inevitable around the world on a warming planet, he added.
“Utahns tend to underestimate the consequences of losing the Great Salt Lake,” Brahney said. “Besides the significant economic consequences, research is showing that it could trigger broader environmental and health concerns. Without a coordinated rescue we can expect widespread air and water pollution issues to increase, numerous Endangered Species Act listings, and declines in agriculture, industry, and overall quality of life in Northern Utah.”
The authors call on the Utah governor’s office to declare a state of emergency, or at the very least implement emergency water conservation measures to reduce water use and ensure that the water makes it to the lake — a significant task given that water planning and allocation for the state takes place in February and March.
They also request the legislature to support emergency efforts while more methodically pursuing longer-term solutions to facilitate reduction in water use and ensure more water reaches the lake over the long term. If the drought persists in the West, as climate scientists are forecasting, reaching a stable level of inflow would require water use cuts of up to 50% around the Great Salt Lake watershed.
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources
Department of Watershed Sciences
Watershed Sciences Department
TOPICSWater 217stories Environment 209stories
Comments and questions regarding this article may be directed to the contact person listed on this page.