Great Salt Lake Will Disappear in 5 Years Without Massive ‘Emergency Rescue,’ Scientists Say
Without dramatic cuts to water consumption, Utah’s Great Salt Lake is on track to disappear within five years, a dire new report warns, imperiling ecosystems and exposing millions of people to toxic dust from the drying lake bed.
The report, led by researchers at Brigham Young University and published this week, found that unsustainable water use has shrunk the lake to just 37 percent of its former volume. The West’s ongoing mega-drought – a crisis made worse by climate change – has accelerated its decline to rates far faster than scientists had predicted.
But current conservation measures are critically insufficient to replace the roughly 40 billion gallons of water the lake has lost annually since 2020, the scientists said.
The Great Salt Lake, plagued by excessive water use and a worsening climate crisis, has dropped to record-low levels two years in a row. The lake is now 19 feet below its natural average level and has entered “uncharted territory” after losing 73% of its water and exposing 60% of its lakebed, the report notes.
“The lake’s ecosystem is not only on the edge of collapse. It is collapsing,” Benjamin Abbott, a professor of ecology at Brigham Young University and lead author of the report, told CNN. “It’s honestly jaw-dropping and totally disarming to see how much of the lake is gone. The lake is mostly lakebed right now.” The lake needs an additional 1 million acre-feet of water per year to reverse the decline, the report states. Doing so would up its average inflow to roughly 2.5 million acre-feet per year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover 1 acre of land a foot deep — roughly 326,000 gallons.)
With the climate getting hotter and drier, many lakes across the West will only see more evaporation, more demand for water, and just ultimate decline in levels. The grim climate reality already unfolding in the Great Salt Lake, Abbott said, is a “microcosm” of what is happening or is set to happen around the world on a warming planet.
Meanwhile, the Great Salt Lake’s collapse has begun. High salinity levels have all but wiped out brine flies, which support millions of migrating birds. Microbialite colonies that serve as the foundation of the lake’s food web have surfaced and died. The lake’s multimillion-dollar mineral extraction industries can’t reach the brine they need, marinas are dry and the lucrative aquaculture industry could go bust next year if rising salinity wipes out the lake’s brine shrimp.
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 yearly, as well as increasing precipitation, suppressing toxic dust, and supporting 80% of Utah’s wetlands.
From the Report