Jan 9, 2023 - News

The Great Salt Lake could disappear by 2027, researchers warn

Illustration of a highway sign reading Salt Lake City with the word Lake crossed out in spraypaint.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

If the Great Salt Lake continues to shrink at its current rate, it could disappear in the next five years, according to researchers from more than a dozen universities and environmental organizations.

What's happening: They sounded the alarm of the lake's rapid demise in a 34-page report released last week.

  • Currently, the lake is losing an average of 1.2 million acre-feet each year. One acre-foot equates to more than 300,000 gallons of water, per the Water Education Foundation.

Why it matters: If the lake dries up, it could result in major health, environmental and economic consequences, the report says.

  • Joel Ferry, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told the New York Times last year the lake's collapse is like an "environmental nuclear bomb."

What's next: Scientists are calling for a significant increase in water flow in 2023 and 2024.

  • While potential solutions like building a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake have been touted, Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University, told Axios water conservation measures are the most cost-effective and resilient response to solving the issue.

What they're saying: "If we intervene now, boldly, and in a scientifically informed way, then we can avoid a lot of those negative consequences," Abbott said.

  • During the 1980s, the lake was on the brink of collapsing when an unusual wet period replenished the lake, Abbott said.

Yes, but: Since 1989, it's been on a steady decline.

Meanwhile, Abbott said he is optimistic that federal and state leaders have the ability to reverse the trend.

  • State lawmakers passed a $40 million restoration bill in 2022. Last month, a $25 million federal bill was passed to research saline lakes in the western U.S.
  • "We are not cynical," he said, adding that with the support of the governor, federal government, state lawmakers and the agriculture community, "we really believe we can save the lake."
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