Since the 1800s, people have been affecting the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and now if quick changes are not made, dire consequences will occur. Once a natural irrigation system for the local agriculture, land, and other bodies of water is now a controlled variable. With the construction of dams, pipelines, and canals, people are now the dominating force. Since 2020, the lake has dropped 1.2 million acre-feet per year, resulting in the water level being 19 feet below average. Furthermore, since 1850, the lake has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its surface area. To combat and reverse this speedy decline, water usage would have to be cut by a third to a half very quickly.
“We have to shift from thinking of nature as a commodity, as a natural resource, to what we’ve learned over the last 50 years in ecology, and what Indigenous cultures have always known,” stated Brigham Young University’s ecosystem ecologist Benjamin Abbott. “Humans depend on the environment … We have to think about, ‘What does the lake need to be healthy?’ and manage our water use with what remains.”
As the lake continues to dry out and the bed becomes exposed, toxic dust that's a mix of metals and metalloids like antimony, copper, zirconium and arsenic become an increasing problem. This toxic combination can lead to soil degradation and snowmelt contamination. This also puts residents at potential risk of developing respiratory issues, heart disease, lung disease, and some cancers. According to the President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Brain Moench, the shrinking of the lake is a “bona fide, documented, unquestionable health hazard.”
Much of the wildlife that call the lake home have been threatened as well. Many species of insects, fish, mammals, birds, and amphibians can not handle the increase in salt. In fact, many migrating birds and other species are facing habitat loss, as this lake holds as a reliable, resting source. To be more specific, brine shrimp, a source of food for millions across the country, are facing population and reproductive environment loss.
The Great Salt Lake is the largest saline lake in North America and provides about 2.5 billion dollars in annual productivity and supports 9,000 local jobs. During the winter season, the lake increases snowfall by 5% to 10% from water evaporation, bringing in another 1.8 billion dollars and 20,000 annual jobs.
“Protecting and preserving the Great Salt Lake is a top priority for the state. The lake is vital to the environment, ecology and economy, not just in Utah but also to the western United States,” stated Candice Hasenyager, Director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.