Utah’s Great Salt Lake is shrinking. A group of local professors and scientists from the Utah Division of Water Resources and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources warned in a paper recently that the lake has been steadily declining since pioneers arrived on the scene in the 1800’s, and if measures aren’t taken to halt the decline, the Great Salt Lake could vanish entirely.

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The paper revealed that since 1847, the lake has been reduced by 48 per cent. That is a drop of 11-feet, a dramatic reduction for a lake that is just 33-feet at its deepest. The Great Salt Lake is the largest salt water lake in the western hemisphere, and it can seem like huge bodies of water are eternal, but NASA photographs and history reveal otherwise. Owens Lake is one such sad tale – although the lake covered over 100 square miles in 1913, after being used as a water source for Los Angeles residents, it was desiccated by 1926.

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The Great Salt Lake isn’t going that fast, but Owens Lake is a cautionary tale of what can happen without conservation. In the paper, Utah scientists said that agriculture has sped the demise of the lake, and is to blame for 63 per cent of the problem.

Dry lakes usually lead to environmental headaches. Local ecosystems, predictably, are thrown off balance by a lake drying up. For example, right now the Great Salt Lake draws hundreds of water fowl, 1.7 million eared grebes, and 3 million shorebirds. If there’s no lake, those birds won’t come.

“Loss of water in the lake threatens its unique ecology, along with the wildlife and industries that depend on the lake’s ecosystem services. Further, lowering lake levels increase dust pollution, which worsens the health effects of the Salt Lake City area’s already serious air pollution problems,” said Wayne Wurtsbaugh, professor at Utah State University.

Dust, that minor inconvenience for most people, can turn into a destructive health issue. Since destroying Owens Lake nearly one hundred years ago, Los Angeles has shelled out over $1.2 billion because of dust.

Utah’s tried to conserve; local residents have even decreased their water usage by 18 per cent. But the scientists say it hasn’t made the impact the lake so desperately needs, and an influx of more people has actually raised water use overall by five per cent.

While plants, animals, and residents stand to lose from the loss of the lake, so does the local government. “Utah’s Great Salt Lake is immensely valuable as an environmental, cultural, and economic resource. A 2012 analysis by Bioeconomics estimated the economic value of the lake at $1.32 billion per year for mineral extraction, brine shrimp cyst production, and recreation,” said the writers of the paper.

Via Daily News

Images via Wikimedia Commons (1,2)