The Great Salt Lake in Utah is disappearing, leaving behind a toxic bowl of dust and potentially one of the greatest environmental disasters in US history

Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake in Utah is at risk of disappearing within five years, scientists say.Johnny Adolphson/Shutterstock

  • Scientists have warned that the Great Salt Lake in Utah could disappear within five years.

  • The lake supports major industries, provides habitats, and suppresses toxic dust in the lakebed.

  • Lawmakers in Utah are working to pass water conservation bills before the current session ends on Friday.

Lawmakers in Utah are working to address the calls of scientists who say time is running out to save the Great Salt Lake from disappearing and stave off impending environmental disaster.

“Great Salt Lake is facing unprecedented danger. Without a dramatic increase in water flow to the lake in 2023 and 2024, its disappearance could cause immense damage to Utah’s public health, environment, and economy,” an emergency briefing published by dozens of researchers in January warned.

The Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western hemisphere, is a keystone ecosystem that supports thousands of local jobs and major industries, provides food and habitat for millions of birds, and suppresses toxic dust in the lakebed that gets exposed as the water levels recede.

Sediments in the lake collect pollutants that come from human activity, such as mining or agriculture. Pollutants that have been detected in the lake include arsenic, lead, mercury, and other dangerous heavy metals. Once the soil is exposed and eroded by wind, the result is dust pollution that can lead to respiratory problems, chronic disease, cancer, and other health issues. When clouds of dust roll into Salt Lake City, they can make the air toxic.

The Great Salt Lake is used for recreation, natural resource extraction, and brine shrimp fishing, a multimillion-dollar industry. It also serves as vital habitat for 10 million migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Agriculture is the largest user of water in the Great Salt Lake watershed, accounting for 85%, according to the Utah Rivers Council.

The scientists blamed excessive water use for the historically low water levels, and warned that at the current rate “the lake as we know it is on track to disappear in five years.” Without a coordinated effort to rescue the lake by pumping water into it this year and next, Utahns could experience widespread air and water pollution, declines in agriculture, industry, and quality of life, and push many species to be classified as threatened or endangered.

The Utah legislature has responded to the dire warnings, with several bills introduced in the current session, which concludes on Friday. Lawmakers are working to pass a bill before then.

One proposed bill would set an emergency trigger that would be activated when the lake reaches a certain level of salinity. As the water level lowers, salinity rises, killing food sources for birds and threatening the brine shrimp industry.

Another bans lawn watering from October to April but was stripped of a provision that required all conserved water to go to the Great Salt Lake, as local water districts had emphasized the need to direct water into reservoirs for later use. And still another bill would create a Great Salt Lake Commissioner who would coordinate between different stakeholders to develop a plan to save the lake and have the power to implement it.

Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill to direct $40 million into efforts to conserve the lake. The federal government also set aside $25 million to “assess, monitor and conserve” saline lake ecosystems in the Great Basin. But the emergency briefing released in January, which outlined recommendations for saving the lake, called for immediate action, not just further study.

“The decisions we make in the coming few months will affect our community and ecosystems across the hemisphere,” Ben Abbott, an ecologist at Brigham Young University and the lead author of the study, said in a press release.

Abbott said the lake needs to be fed an extra million acre-feet of water per year to stave off its collapse, which would require a 30% to 50% reduction in water use across the state of Utah. He also said he was encouraged by state leaders and others who were working on solutions.

It’s still unclear what bills will pass before the legislative session concludes on Friday, but some lawmakers say they are committed to saving the lake.

“It’s nothing less than an existential threat for people on the Wasatch front,” Utah state Rep. Doug Owens, a Democrat and co-chair of the Great Salt Lake Caucus, told Bloomberg. “It’s not going to be a livable place if the lake disappears. I feel confident that we aren’t going to let that happen.”

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