November 04, 2020

Can conserving water save the Great Salt Lake?

by Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Nov 1, 2020, 6:00pm MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The Dead Sea, bordering the West Bank, Israel and Jordan, is drying up at a rapid rate, leading to the formation of more than 5,000 sinkholes that are swallowing roads and other infrastructure.

Utah’s Great Salt Lake is in similar decline brought on by decades of drought and diversions from its tributaries that feed water to lawns and fields in northern Utah.

Terminal saline lakes like these two are in trouble around the world, and it is more than just aesthetics — whole economies, jobs, tourism and livelihoods are in jeopardy, along with ecosystems that support millions of birds and other wildlife.

But a recent study suggests that water users, by dropping their per-gallon-per-day consumption by 50 gallons, could delay a planned Utah project to siphon more water that feeds into the lake. The postponement could be as much as 45 years or longer if the practices take hold.

While the Great Salt Lake has not experienced a crush of sinkholes like the Dead Sea, it is something that should not be dismissed, said Great Salt Lake Coordinator Laura Vernon, with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. There have already been multiple local university studies probing the travel of wind-blown dust from the exposed lake bed at the Great Salt Lake, she added.

“I think Utah residents have been asked to be conservation minded quite a bit in the past, but this is a wake-up call to say if we don’t conserve, it will impact the Great Salt Lake — and there are negative consequences to that.”

This latest probe, call The Conservation Impacts Study commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, looked at water use in four large water districts and established that the daily average per person water consumption in 2015 was 232 gallons per day in these areas.

If water consumption could drop by 50 gallons per person in these large water districts, it would delay the need for the Bear River Development project by decades, the study says.

Prior studies have warned that based on current consumption patterns, the water levels in the Great Salt Lake could drop by an additional 11 feet into the future.

The consequences of a drying lake hurt human health, industry, the tourism sector and an area’s bottom line.

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Read the full report commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council here.