Shriveling the Salt Lakes of the World

Mountains of the Great Salt Lake in Winter. Image from wikipedia

Utah Great Salt Lake has shrunk to a depth of about 14 feet—nearly half its former average since it was settled by the Mormons 170 years ago. Under a controversial engineering plan, the lake would recede even further.  State engineers want to siphon off some of the river water that flows into the lake and use it for the Salt Lake City area’s booming population. Proponents say the plan, which calls for lapping up a fifth of Bear River’s current unused flow, is essential for meeting the region’s needs.

But critics note that the diversion would cause the lake to drop by almost a foot, according to state estimates, eventually exposing 30 square miles of lake bed and potentially worsening the dust storms that regularly blanket the region and ruining a fragile wetlands habitat.

The debate echoes concerns heard in many other arid parts of the world. Salt lake ecology is especially delicate and requires a certain amount of fresh water to maintain a saline balance. Brine shrimp, for instance, could die off if the water becomes too salty.

In the Middle East, diversion of the Jordan and other rivers that feed the Dead Sea has shriveled the famous body of saltwater and its once robust tourism. The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has shrunk to about 10% of its original size after diversions.

Critics, including environmental groups and affected businesses, say that under the new diversion plan lake-dependent businesses such as brine shrimp fishing would suffer, as would farmers whose land could be inundated upstream if existing dams are raised to retain more water. In all, the lake accounts for an estimated $1.3 billion in annual economic output, according to Utah State University, much of it from the shrimping industry, as well as mineral extraction and tourism.

The plan would also destroy wetlands along the lake shoreline that provide food and habitat for an estimated eight million birds, said Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group opposed to the project.

But proponents say the diversion of up to 72 billion gallons of water—enough to meet the needs of a city of one million for a year—is needed to forestall anticipated shortages for one of the fastest-growing regions in the country….“If Utah continues to grow, it’s not a matter of if but when we are going to need more water,” said state Sen. Stuart Adams, the Republican majority whip, who sponsored a bill to begin funding the estimated $1.5 billion project.

Excerpt from Utah Searches for Water Solution, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2017

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