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Utah's Great Salt Lake is shrinking, experts say

A team of ecologists and water and wildlife managers in Utah recently published a paper that said the Great Salt Lake is shrinking due in part to water development and river diversions.

While the research group acknowledged the role that climate fluctuations, such as droughts and floods, have played in the shift of the lake's water levels over time, the decrease in the lake's size is predominantly due to human causes. According to the report, the heavy reliance on consumptive water uses has reduced the lake level by 11 feet and its volume by 48 percent.

Faculty from Utah State University and Salt Lake Community College, as well as employees from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Utah Division of Water Resources authored the paper, titled "Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front."

"There's no doubt about it, Great Salt Lake is shrinking," Wayne Wurtsbaugh, lead author of the paper and professor at Utah State's Department of Watershed Resources, said in a Utah State news article.

Wurtsbaugh told AccuWeather that in addition to the diversions reducing the lake level by 11 feet, drought conditions over the last few years have caused the lake's level to drop even more.

"The actual lake level is down even more than that because we've also been in a drought the last few years and so it's down probably an additional 3 feet," he said.

About 30 percent of Utah is experiencing moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Since the first pioneers settled near the lake in 1847, the lake levels have persistently declined and net river inflow to the lake has been reduced by 39 percent over the past 150 years, the report states.

The Great Salt Lake holds an economic value of $1.32 billion for recreation, mineral extraction and brine shrimp cyst production. The lowered lake levels are said to have a negative economic impact on several of those industries.

With more of the lake bed exposed, specifically about 550 square miles, that could mean more locally severe dust storms. Salt Lake City is already facing serious air pollution problems, particularly during events known as winter inversions. The city experienced its worst air quality in years back in February, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

"Dust storms have increased and we're worried about that and its impact on human health," Wurtsbaugh said.

Millions of waterfowl call the lake home and utilize the shallow waters of Farmington Bay and Bear River Bay for nesting areas and food sources. However, low lake levels threaten the habitat of these birds.

The paper's authors also cautioned against future development of the lake's water supply. One such project is the proposed Bear River Development Project, which was recently approved for additional funding by the state legislature and awaits final approval from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. The researchers said it could decrease the lake by 8-14 inches and leave another 30-45 square miles of the lake bed exposed.

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"Additional water development in the basin, exacerbated by long-term climate variability, may further reduce the lake's level unless conservation efforts are increased for urban, industrial, and especially agricultural uses," the report said.

Other notable salt lakes around the world have vanished throughout history and left behind environmental problems, such as increased dust production. Owens Lake in California, Lake Urmia in Iran and the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are three such examples highlighted in the report.

While the Great Salt Lake is not in jeopardy of disappearing any time soon, the group said that decisions made now could preserve the lake's benefits and mitigate negative impacts for the coming centuries.

"It really depends on how much water we develop," Wurtsbaugh said. "We're not by any means in imminent danger of drying the lake up in the next couple decades, but it remains to be seen how we develop and use our water."


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook