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Unless something drastic happens soon, the Great Salt Lake – the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere – could be gone within five years, with devastating environmental and economic consequences. The main cause of the iconic lake’s steady decline is unsustainable water usage in the watershed, though droughts exacerbated by climate change are also contributing factors.
If the lake does disappear, it won’t just mean the loss of the landmark that gave Utah’s capital city its name. Thousands of jobs in the region would be lost, from recreation to industry to agriculture, depriving the state’s economy of well over $1 billion each year.
Even more alarmingly, the exposed lakebed could spread tiny dust particles (as well as some natural and manmade toxins) across the region, damaging crops, causing snowmelt, affecting soil quality, and potentially impacting the health of over two million people. Many animal species in the region are also at risk, including brine flies, brine shrimp, and migratory birds.
Disaster for the Great Salt Lake?
- A recent report penned by scientists and conservationists warns that water usage in the Great Salt Lake watershed will need to be curtailed by 30 - 50% to sustain the lake. To reverse the decline, around 2.5 million acre-feet per year of average inflow will be necessary.
- Since the early 1900s, dams, pipelines, and canals have significantly affected the Great Salt Lake. As it currently stands, the lake is 60 percent smaller in terms of surface area than it was in 1850, and 73% of the water has disappeared. Incredibly, the lake is 19 feet (5.8 m) lower than its natural average level.
- So who's taking all the water? In 2017, for example, 3.3 trillion liters of water were diverted from streams that would naturally flow into the lake, mainly for agricultural purposes, but also for mineral extraction, industrial use, and irrigation – including watering lawns.