Monday, January 09, 2023

Emergency briefing: Great Salt Lake has 5 more years without 'extreme intervention' for water conservation

Dust blows through Antelope Island and the Great Salt Lake.
(Photo by Trent Nelson, The Salt Lake Tribune)
The Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth-largest terminal lake in the world. Experts are warning that without extreme intervention, the lake will be gone in five years due to "excessive water use" in the lake's basin, reports Leia Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune.

Released as an emergency briefing to the state legislature, the warning outlines the "'unprecedented danger to Utah’s public health, environment and economy if the lake does not receive a 'dramatic' influx of water by 2024," Larsen writes. "The lake has already hit record-low elevations for two years in a row, exposing 60% of its lakebed which continues to dry into a toxic source of dust pollution."

Ben Abbott, a professor of aquatic ecology at Brigham Young University and lead author of the briefing, said in a news release, “The decisions we make in the coming few months will affect our community and ecosystems across the hemisphere."

In response, "The Utah Legislature took some of its biggest conservation measures to date last session in an effort to save the Great Salt Lake. They took a helicopter tour of its massive exposed lakebed and approved a $40 million trust to secure water rights and improve habitat for the lake," Larsen reports. "They funneled millions toward mandatory secondary water metering. They revised the state’s pioneer-era water laws to allow farmers to lease their water rights and use them to benefit environmental interests like the Great Salt Lake. . . . But lake researchers and advocates say it’s not enough."

As the clock ticks, "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," Larsen writes. "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."

Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake, told Larsen, "In the face of this [crisis], we need our state leadership to say, ‘Not on my watch,’ and "do whatever it takes to pull the lake back from the edge.”

Larsen reports: "Human consumption is mostly to blame for the Great Salt Lake’s desiccation. The lake has lost more than 1 million acre-feet each year since 2020, according to the report, which is 'much more' than models predicted. . . . According to the report, "Conservation is the only way to provide adequate water in time to save Great Salt Lake. Conservation is also the most cost-effective and resilient response."

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