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Not all rivers flow to an ocean. Some rainfall finds its way to dead seas, places where a stream of water reaches its lowest elevation and stops moving. The water eventually evaporates, leaving salts and minerals behind. Which dead sea in the United States could dry up in a few decades, and what consequences would it have?
When most people hear the term “dead sea,” they think of the body of water outside Jerusalem, which has the official name “The Dead Sea.” However, there are many dead seas on earth.
Outside Magazine featured an article about the status of the Great Salt Lake in 2021 (https://bit.ly/3HEZfpz). As the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi, the Great Salt Lake is nearly four times saltier than the ocean and five times larger in surface area than Lake Tahoe.
The article went on to describe a grim future for the lake: “In the 1980s, the lake’s water levels rose high enough to flood highways and threaten railway lines; today it’s flirting with all-time lows, brought on by a period of drought that has parched the Southwest since the early 2000s. Some models predict that the lake, an iconic feature of the Intermountain West and a contributor to Utah’s legendary snowfall, could disappear almost entirely in the next few decades.”
2021 was an especially dry year in Utah. The Utah Department of Natural Resources notes that all counties in Utah are experiencing some level of drought, as 16 of the state’s top 49 reservoirs are less than 20 percent full (https://bit.ly/3Lm8Ofu).
While the Great Salt Lake is the largest in Utah, it is not composed of water you want to drink. Only one species of animal can survive the salinity in this body of water: brine shrimp. The Great Salt Lake has never been a successful draw for tourism and recreation, especially compared to other natural landmarks in Utah. For this reason, the lake is often written off as unimportant.
The meteorological influence of the Great Salt Lake is arguably much more important than the lake itself. The lake effect caused by the body of water encourages snow in the Wasatch Mountains to the east.
Similar to the lake-effect snow created in areas surrounding the Great Lakes, enormous snowstorms can occur as cold air moves across open water. The lake-effect snow keeps Utah’s freshwater reservoirs full and supports the ski tourism industry near the state’s capital city.
If the Great Salt Lake were to dry up, a handful of adventurous folks would miss its recreational value. The rest of the state could suffer from the cascading issues created by the lack of a lake. Without the lake, the snow may pass over the Utah mountains near Salt Lake City more often, damaging the tourism industry and affecting the reservoir levels.
To make matters worse, the dust from the dry lake bed containing heavy metals could blow across the surrounding metropolitan area frequently.
One of the hot button issues in Utah relates to another large lake in the northern part of the state. Bear Lake is a freshwater lake near Logan, Utah, that straddles the border with Idaho. The water from this lake eventually feeds the Great Salt Lake, via the Bear River. There is a movement to funnel water from Bear Lake directly to residents of Salt Lake City instead of allowing it to flow into the Great Salt Lake.
This plan would boost water security in the metropolitan area but could be a nail in the coffin for the Great Salt Lake.
In 1991, Utah passed the Bear River Development Act, which gives the state the ability to build reservoirs from this mountain stream. Doing so would make 220,000 acre-feet of water available for four different water districts in the area, piped to the respective watersheds (https://bit.ly/364GVZl). Advocates of the Bear River Development point to the potential to recharge the figurative batteries of water needed for the growing communities.
Opponents of the Bear River Development note that it could effectively kill the Great Salt Lake and cause a bigger ripple effect (https://bit.ly/3sxKpuM). The acre-feet of water currently flowing from Bear Lake to the Great Salt Lake keeps it from drying as quickly and makes the freshwater undrinkable. The price tag for the Bear River project is $1.7 billion, which could be used for other water conservation projects.
In 2022, Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox released a water action plan (gopb.utah.gov/waterplan). In the announcement, he said: “The extreme drought conditions this past year have shown all Utahns the importance of water planning and conservation. We have benefited from water storage decisions made by policymakers 100 years ago. Now it’s our turn to ensure water security for future generations, and this plan will do this.”
Before this announcement, Cox made national headlines in 2021 for declaring a “weekend of prayer” for rain. While that declaration did not hurt anything, it was a little less comprehensive than many Utahns had anticipated from the elected official in charge of developing and enforcing state water policy. The 2022 water plan is expected to be more restrictive as it develops over the year.
While the populations of the Intermountain West states are only a small percentage of the country, they do stick out in a natural resource consumption analysis. Utah, Idaho and Wyoming use a lot of water per capita. These states almost doubled the national average in 2010 and 2015 United States Geological Survey datasets of water usage per citizen (https://on.doi.gov/3BcnWrl).
Living in the west requires a lot of water. In California, Nevada and Arizona, water is generally conserved more aggressively. Utah, Idaho and Wyoming may need to play policy catch-up to better secure freshwater futures.
If Utah loses its dead sea, the fundamental livability of the state will change. Water conservation measures will need to be accelerated to ensure the best use of available water. If the state's geography no longer has a lake to cause lake-effect snowstorms, the baseline snowpack will continue to dwindle. As a state, Utahns need to decide how badly they want to keep their dead sea alive.