Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Great Salt Lake is not so great these days

A lot of attention has been paid to the drying up of Lake Mead in California. But it is far from the only lake in southwestern USA that is going through some hard times due to climate change.

The Great Salt Lake of Utah has already lost two-thirds of its volume since the late 1980s, and some serious environmental problems await the state if it continues to shrink. Raging population growth, reduced rain and snowfall, and more evaporation of lake water and snow cover due to increased temperatures, are all conspiring to create a potential environmental catastrophe in the region. Even local Republican lawmakers are sounding the alarm bells.

The lake's flies and brine shrimp are already starting to die off and, if this continues, then the huge numbers of bird-life that rely on it will also start to fail. Ski conditions in the resorts above Salt Lake City, a major money-spinner for the state, will deteriorate (the snow in the mountains is largely generated by water from the lake). The lucrative extraction of magnesium and other minerals from the lake will stop, or at least be forced to change drastically. Windstorms will start to carry arsenic, antimony, zirconium and other poisonous minerals from the dried-out lake-bed, threatening the air of Salt Lake City and other nearby population centres (where three-quarters of the state's residents live), and potentially making them unlivable for periods of time. 

Last but by no means least, saving the Great Salt Lake would require letting more snow-melt from the mountains flow down to the lake, rather than siphoning it off for residents and farmers, meaning less usable water, and potentially putting a brake on population growth and the high-value agriculture the region has developed. 

The Salt Lake City region is one of the fastest growing urban areas in America (it is expected to grow by almost 50% by 2060). The ongoing drought is putting that in peril, and local politicians will have some hard decisions to make. The delicate hydrologic balance in the area is starting to break, and damage limitation is increasingly the name of the game.

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