Once a vast expanse of shimmering blue that looked, from Utah’s Salt Lake City, much like the ocean, the Great Salt Lake has withered to a puddle of its former self. Climate change, industry growth and farming are draining it dry, and scientists say it may only have five years left. Is there any way to undo the damage?
Even with record snow fall over the winter of 2023 that filled many of the dry parched lands its by far no means to celebrate just yet. More need to be done to ensure the longevity of this life source.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
A 2015 report to the Utah Legislature predicted demand for water in Utah could overtake supply by 2040. Today, scientists think that date will come much sooner. The Great Salt Lake is already losing an average of 1.2 million acre-feet annually, and it’s on track to disappear entirely by 2028. What’s behind this catastrophic water loss?
By far, the Great Salt Lake is shrinking mainly due to agricultural use — much of it from alfalfa farming. Growing alfalfa hay only represents 0.2% of the Utah economy but uses 68% of the state’s water. Utah farmers grow alfalfa to feed livestock both domestically and overseas.
Record-breaking droughts are speeding up the Great Salt Lake’s evaporation. Severe weather events have become five times more common in the past 50 years, accounting for 74% of economic losses worldwide.
The Great Salt Lake supports around 2 million tons of salt extraction annually, a process that uses a lot of water. It also supplies magnesium and lithium. These minerals are crucial for making electronics and electric car batteries.
The Loss of the Lake
How is the Great Salt Lake’s disappearance already affecting Utah, and what will happen if it completely dries up?
People Will Lose Their Jobs
As the lake dries up, so will Salt Lake City’s booming mineral industry, leading to thousands of direct and indirect job losses. Many residents will have to change careers or leave the area entirely.
Another industry that will quickly run aground is the brine shrimp sector. A staggering 45% of the world’s brine shrimp supply comes from the Great Salt Lake. Aquaculturists use these tiny crustaceans to raise fish and shrimp for human consumption. As lake water levels drop, the salt concentration increases, threatening their population.
Ecosystems Will Collapse
Brine shrimp are having a harder time reproducing due to increased salinity in the lake. So are the lake’s flies, which support various birds. The Great Salt Lake is an important stopover for migratory birds crossing the country. The entire ecosystem that depends on it is at risk of collapsing.
Tourism Will Suffer
The Great Salt Lake also influences Utah’s local climate and weather. The lake increases snow production in the winter, which benefits the ski resort industry. Less snow could cost the sector up to $9.6 million annually. Without water for boating, the recreation and tourism industry will take a direct hit.
Toxic Dust Will Fill the Air
The most terrifying prospect is the risk of poisonous dust affecting nearby residents. The Great Salt Lake’s bed contains high levels of arsenic, lanthanum, zirconium and lithium. If the lake dried out completely, it would send clouds of toxic dust containing these dried-out metals into the air, threatening people’s health.
California’s Owens Lake is a grim example of how a vanishing body of water can leave toxic dust in its wake. After being diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct and drying up, it became the nation’s largest source of dust pollution. The dust contains carcinogens like nickel, arsenic and cadmium that cause respiratory issues for people living nearby.
If the Great Salt Lake keeps shrinking, Utah may have to spend $610.4 million annually to mitigate the dust problem.
In 2021, Salt Lake City stopped giving permits to businesses with high water needs — like bottling plants and data centers — to reduce water use. Another sign of progress came the same year when the state legislature passed H.B. 33: Instream Water Flow Amendments, which removed the penalty for farmers who conserved water. Why was there a penalty in the first place?
Glass Half Empty
Farmers were operating under Utah’s use-it-or-lose-it water policy, which H.B. 33 abolished. This law allowed the state to forfeit part or all of farmers’ water rights if they didn’t use every drop of their allocated water.
In other words, anyone who didn’t drain their glass wouldn’t be given as much to drink next time, if at all. The policy incentivized farmers to use more water than needed to secure their rights.
Despite recent progress, Utah farmers still have no financial incentives to conserve water. The government must make conservation an attractive option by rewarding farmers who use less water.
The Race to the Bottom of the Lake
Another reason farmers use so much water is that they’re legally entitled to it. Under Utah’s prior allocation water rights system, the first person to divert a water source has the right to use it — first come, first served. The original European settlers in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley were agrarian Mormon immigrants, establishing themselves in 1847 and laying claim to surrounding waterways.
Generations later, long-established farmers still operate under the prior allocation rule, representing one of the main reasons the Great Salt Lake is shrinking. The problem is that there are more people today than in the mid-1800s. Farmers are scaling up production to meet growing demands for food and hay rather than switching to less water-intensive crops.
Prior allocation is no longer a viable model for water use in Utah. Legislators must revise or abolish it to bring policies in line with modern needs.
For the Greatest Good
Another way to solve the water crisis is to amend the beneficial use doctrine. This policy means that anyone who wants to purchase or lease a water right must prove they’re using it for something worthwhile.
The doctrine’s heart is in the right place, but the unintended side effect is that purchasing water rights is very expensive and time-consuming, making it hard to transfer them to a conservation group. Utah could follow California’s model, which allows some temporary transfers to happen without formally verifying beneficial use.
Time Is Running Out
Calls for Salt Lake City residents to reduce their water use are a red herring. It’s not that municipal water use plays no part in the shrinking lake, but long showers, bird baths and lawn sprinklers represent a mere drop in the bucket compared to the effects of agriculture. The mineral industry and climate change are also exacerbating the issue.
Residents aren’t responsible for the lake running dry, so they shouldn’t feel obligated to solve the issue by using less water. What they can do, instead, is vote. Utah’s very future depends on it.