Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, could dry up completely within five years unless water use is significantly curbed, researchers warn.
“The lake’s ecosystem isn’t just on the brink 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 decisions we make over the next few months will shape our state and ecosystems throughout the West for decades to come.”
The level of the lake has been at record lows for two years in a row. If water continues to fall at the rate it has been since 2020, “the lake as we know it is on track to disappear in five years,” the report said.
The lake has steadily shrunk because so much water from the rivers and streams that feed it is diverted for human use. This is exacerbated by the climate change-induced mega-drought that has been drying out the western U.S. for years as less rain and snow gets into the water system.
The Washington Post noted that more than 70 percent of the state’s water use is used to grow 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 shrimp and flies. It is also an important breeding ground for pelicans.
The disappearance of the lake also poses threats to human health. When salt lakes dry up, their exposed layers become sources of harmful dust that pollutes the air, and the longer the exposed layer remains dry, the more dust escapes.
The Brigham Young report makes numerous recommendations to save the lake, including increasing federal and state funding for conservation efforts, helping farmers switch to crops that use less water, and expanding programs aimed at removing peat and planting native vegetation that requires less water.
“We are in an emergency with all hands 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,” it said in the report. “We believe our community is uniquely positioned to meet this challenge, but only if we conduct a unified and groundbreaking rescue operation.”