Experts warned the Great Salt Lake was about to disappear then came a wet winter. What now?

A few months after experts shockingly predicted the Great Salt Lake could dry up within five years, Mother Nature dropped an unexpected reprieve: The biggest Utah snowpack in recorded history.

Melting snow has already lifted water levels in the lake four feet from their historic low last fall, compared to only a foot last spring. But experts warn this is a temporary easing of what continues to be a long-term drought compounded by overuse of existing water.

"This buys another year, another two. It doesn't solve the problem but it gives us the breathing room we need to implement comprehensive solutions," said Benjamin Abbott, a professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University in nearby Provo, Utah. "I think we need to be really wise how to use this gift."

How does climate change affect you?Subscribe to the weekly Climate Point newsletter

READ MORE:Latest climate change news from USA TODAY

Is the Great Salt Lake drying up?

State of Utah Department of Natural Resources park ranger Angelic Lemmon walks across reef-like structures called microbialites, exposed by receding waters, at the Great Salt Lake, near Salt Lake City, on Sept. 28, 2022.

Yes, in two ways.

In part because farmers and residents are using more water than ever before, the lake over the past three years has received less than a third of its natural streamflow. Last year, the lake's surface dropped to a record low elevation of 4,188 feet above sea level because it's not being recharged by rivers.

The water that should be flowing in is instead being used to grow crops or water lawns. The Salt Lake City area is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas of the country.

WATER CRISIS NEWSWater levels are going up in the West's massive reservoirs. Has the water crisis been averted?

Second, climate change is giving the Salt Lake City area hotter summers, which increases evaporation in the lake. And the lower the lake gets, the faster it evaporates. And in more typical years, more precipitation is falling as rain than snow, which means it runs off faster and doesn't recharge underground aquifers as much.

"We're still in a megadrought and we can't be complacent," said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Great Salt Lake.

What are the consequences of the Great Salt Lake drying up?

The lake's water is too salty to use for irrigation or drinking. But because it's so salty, the lake is home to brine shrimp – those tiny little creatures sold as Sea-Monkeys. Harvesting brine shrimp for commercial fish food supports thousands of jobs and provides more than $1.5 billion in revenue annually.

Those shrimp are also an important food source for migratory birds, and if the water level gets too low and concentrates the salt levels too much, the whole system could collapse. Additionally, lower water levels mean the lake's shore gets smaller, increasing competition for space.

'Terrifying prospect':Utah's Great Salt Lake could disappear in 5 years without drastic water conservation

“It’s really important to have this amazing winter, to help address some of the water challenges we’re having," said Marcelle Shoop, director of the National Audubon Society’s Saline Lake program. The climbing lake levels are important for millions of migratory birds that depend on the lake, Shoop said. 

“But in terms of addressing the challenges facing the Great Salt Lake in the long term, we still have our work cut out for us," she said. "We still have to continue on the path of reducing our water consumption and finding a way to meet the needs of the environment and people.”

Additionally, the lakebed is contaminated with minerals that can be hazardous to breathe in, and as the lake has shrunk, massive dust storms have periodically enveloped Salt Lake City.

"It's not pretty ‒ it's a lot of heavy metals," de Freitas said.

What's recently being done to help the Great Salt Lake?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made headlines earlier this year when it announced it would donate 20,000 acre-feet of water annually to prop up the lake. Although it's a literal and proverbial drop in the bucket, it's an important move that could prompt other big water users to make similar contributions or cutbacks, experts 

What are the long-term solutions?

About 80% of the Salt Lake's decline is attributable to irrigation, Abbott said, which means agriculture will have to play a role in reversing that trend. Most of the irrigated farmland in Utah grows alfalfa or other pasture crops, which are used to feed beef cattle. He said water users across Utah need to develop a plan to use less water so that more can flow into the lake.

"We're taking more water out of the system then is sustainably available," he said. "Through time, we deplete the bank account."

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.