Click the link to access the paper on the Brigham Young University website (Benjamin W. Abbott, Bonnie K. Baxter, Karoline Busche, Lynn de Freitas, Rebecca Frei, Teresa Gomez, Mary Anne Karren, Rachel L. Buck, Joseph Price, Sara Frutos, Robert B. Sowby, Janice Brahney, Bryan G. Hopkins, Matthew F. Bekker, Jeremy S. Bekker, Russell Rader, Brian Brown, Mary Proteau, Gregory T. Carling, Lafe Conner, Paul Alan Cox, Ethan McQuhae, Christopher Oscarson, Daren T. Nelson, R. Jeffrey Davis, Daniel Horns, Heather Dove, Tara Bishop, Adam Johnson, Kaye Nelson, John Bennion, Patrick Belmont). Here’s the executive summary:
Great Salt Lake is a keystone ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere. The lake and its wetlands provide minerals for Utah’s industries, thousands of local jobs, and habitat for 10 million migratory birds1–4. Fertilizer and brine shrimp from the lake feed millions of people worldwide5,6. The lake provides $2.5 billion in direct economic activity yearly7–10, as well as increasing precipitation, suppressing toxic dust, and supporting 80% of Utah’s wetlands11–17.
Excessive water use is destroying Great Salt Lake. At 19 feet below its average natural level since 1850, the lake is in uncharted territory18–22. It has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its surface area23–26. Our unsustainable water use is desiccating habitat, exposing toxic dust, and driving salinity to levels incompatible with the lake’s food webs1,24,27–29. The lake’s drop has accelerated since 2020, with an average deficit of 1.2 million acre-feet per year. If this loss rate continues, the lake as we know it is on track to disappear in five years.
We are underestimating the consequences of losing the lake. Despite encouraging growth in legislative action and public awareness, most Utahns do not realize the urgency of this crisis. Examples from around the world show that saline lake loss triggers a long-term cycle of environmental, health, and economic suffering30–35. Without a coordinated rescue, we can expect widespread air and water pollution, numerous Endangered Species Act listings, and declines in agriculture, industry, and overall quality of life1–4,36.
The lake needs an additional million acre-feet per year to reverse its decline. This would increase average streamflow to ~2.5 million acre-feet per year, beginning a gradual refilling. Depending on future weather conditions, achieving this level of flow will require cutting consumptive water use in the Great Salt Lake watershed by a third to a half. Recent efforts have returned less than 0.1 million acre-feet per year to the lake37, with most conserved water held in reservoirs or delivered to other users rather than released to the lake.
Water conservation is the way. While water augmentation is often discussed (pipelines, cloud seeding, new reservoirs, and groundwater extraction, etc.), conservation is the only way to provide adequate water in time to save Great Salt Lake33,38–41. Conservation is also the most cost effective and resilient response42,43, and there are successful examples throughout the region44–48. Ensuring financial, legislative, and technical support for conservation will pay huge dividends during this crisis and for decades to come1,38,46,49.
We need to increase trust and coordination. New legislation allows users to return water to the lake while retaining rights50. However, lack of trust and cooperation between farmers, cities, managers, and policymakers is hobbling our response33,38. Users often have financial disincentives to conserve, and farmers often lack legal counsel to navigate policy changes.
We call on the governor’s office to implement a watershed-wide emergency rescue. We recommend setting an emergency streamflow requirement of at least 2.5 million acre-feet per year until the lake reaches its minimum healthy elevation of 4,198 feet51. Executive leadership is needed for water leasing, farmer compensation, water donations, and conveyance52. Every major water user needs to be educated, empowered, and assured that their conserved water will be shepherded to Great Salt Lake. We need clear thresholds that trigger binding emergency conservation measures to stop the lake’s collapse.
We call on the legislature to fund and facilitate the rescue. Recent bills have laid the groundwork, and a surge of funding is now needed to lease or purchase water and support farmers and cities to dramatically reduce consumption. Likewise, legislation is needed to put in place the policies, accounting, and monitoring for water shepherding to the lake and long- term sustainable water use52.
We call on every water user and manager to conserve water and support state efforts. We are in an all-hands-on-deck emergency, and we need farmers, counties, cities, businesses, churches, universities, and other organizations to do everything in their power to reduce outdoor water use. We believe that our community is uniquely suited to face this challenge, but only if we implement a unified and pioneering rescue. By taking a “lake first” approach to water use, we can leave a legacy of wise stewardship for generations to come.