Technical ReportPDF Available

Emergency measures needed to rescue Great Salt Lake from ongoing collapse


Abstract and Figures

Great Salt Lake is facing unprecedented danger. Without a dramatic increase in water flow to the lake in 2023 and 2024, its disappearance could cause immense damage to Utah's public health, environment, and economy. This briefing provides background and recommends emergency measures. The choices we make over the next few months will affect our state and ecosystems throughout the West for decades to come. We thank all those already working on solutions, and we thank you for considering this information.
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Emergency measures needed to rescue
Great Salt Lake from ongoing collapse
Great Salt Lake is facing unprecedented danger. Without a dramatic increase in water flow to
the lake in 2023 and 2024, its disappearance could cause immense damage to Utah’s public
health, environment, and economy. This briefing provides background and recommends
emergency measures. The choices we make over the next few months will affect our state and
ecosystems throughout the West for decades to come. We thank all those already working on
solutions, and we thank you for considering this information.
Benjamin W. Abbott1, Bonnie K. Baxter2, Karoline Busche1, Lynn de Freitas3, Rebecca Frei4, Teresa Gomez1, Mary
Anne Karren3, Rachel L. Buck1, Joseph Price1, Sara Frutos1, Robert B. Sowby1, Janice Brahney5, Bryan G. Hopkins1,
Matthew F. Bekker1, Jeremy S. Bekker1, Russell Rader1, Brian Brown1, Mary Proteau1, Gregory T. Carling1, Lafe
Conner6, Paul Alan Cox7, Ethan McQuhae1, Christopher Oscarson1, Daren T. Nelson8, R. Jeffrey Davis9, Daniel Horns8,
Heather Dove10, Tara Bishop11, Adam Johnson12, Kaye Nelson12, John Bennion12, Patrick Belmont5
1Brigham Young University, 2Westminster College, 3Friends of Great Salt Lake, 4University of Alberta, 5Utah State University,
6Wasatch High School, 7Brain Chemistry Labs, Jackson Hole, 8Utah Valley University, 9Integral Consulting,
10Great Salt Lake Audubon, 11Ph.D. Research Ecologist, 12Conserve Utah Valley
Figure 1.
A bridge where the Bear River used to flow into Great Salt Lake. Photo: EcoFlight.
First published on Wednesday, January 4th, 2023
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 wetlands1117.
Excessive water use is destroying Great Salt Lake
. At 19 feet below its average natural level
since 1850, the lake is in uncharted territory1822. It has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its
surface area2326. Our unsustainable water use is desiccating habitat, exposing toxic dust,
and driving salinity to levels incompatible with the lake’s food webs1,24,2729. 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 suffering3035. 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 Lake33,3841. Conservation is also the most
cost effective and resilient response42,43, and there are successful examples throughout the
region4448. 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.
Figure 2.
An American Avocet forages in Great Salt Lake. Photo: Mary Anne Karren.
The lake’s importance
Great Salt Lake is the largest saline lake in North America. The lake and its wetlands form a
keystone ecosystem that supports biodiversity and human economy throughout the
Hemisphere1. Terminal lakes like Great Salt Lake occur in semi-arid regions where there is
enough precipitation to sustain surface water but not enough to erode a river channel to the
ocean53. The lake directly provides ~$2.5 billion in economic productivity each year and
supports ~9,000 jobs locally (Table 1)7. These direct benefits come primarily from mineral
extraction, recreation, and brine shrimp harvesting7–9. Evaporation from Great Salt Lake
increases annual snowfall in nearby mountains by 5-10%, supporting another 20,000 jobs and
an additional $1.8 billion in annual economic activity8,9,16,54.
The lake is a vital link in the Pacific Flyway, providing food and habitat for more than 10 million
migratory birds and wildlife throughout the Wasatch Front1,4,36,55. Almost 350 bird species
depend on Great Salt Lake habitats, including globally significant numbers of Eared Grebes,
Tundra Swans, Snowy Plovers, American Avocets, and multiple species of ducks, phalaropes,
owls, and blackbirds (Fig. 3). The lake’s diverse wetland, island, and open-water environments
are becoming even more crucial as habitat is lost or degraded throughout the western US56,57.
Great Salt Lake also provides numerous ecosystem services, including protection of air quality,
removal of water pollution, and moderation of local weather27,29,54,58. As the namesake of the Salt
Lake Valley, the lake is foundational to our cultural identity59. Its dramatic vistas have inspired
countless scientists, pioneers, artists, writers, photographers, and recreationists27,59. We
believe that our stewardship of the lake reflects our community’s cultural values. Protecting the
lake is not only a question of public health, economy, or environment; it shows our moral
commitment to create a healthy home for ourselves, other living things, and future generations.
Figure 3.
Ten of the 338 bird species known to feed, breed, or seek refuge at Great Salt Lake. Photos: Mary Anne
Karren, Jeff Beck, Jeremy Bekker, Russell Hatch, Travis McCabe, Chuck Castleton.
Table 1. Direct economic value of Great Salt Lake
Millions USD/year
Economic output
Labor income
Ski industry*
*Estimates include 5% of Utah’s ski industrythe approximate amount of Wasatch Front resort snowfall that comes from Great Salt
Lake evaporation. Estimates are from 7–10 expressed in 2022 USD. These numbers should be considered as underestimates
because they do not include the broader ecosystem services provided by the lake system.
Causes of decline
After millennia of natural fluctuations, human water use has pushed Great Salt Lake into
structural decline. Since 2020, the lake has lost just over one million acre-feet of water each
year (Fig. 4), much more than predicted by current hydrographic models20,60,61. If this rate of
water loss continues, the lake would be on track to disappear in the next five years. The lake is
now 10 feet and 6.9 million acre-feet below its minimum healthy level, which has only been
attained once since 2002 (Fig. 4)51.
Figure 4.
Elevation, extent, and volume of Great Salt Lake from 1985 to 2022. The mean natural values were
determined from estimated 1850-2016 values without human water use3. The 1985 lake level is close to the long-
term natural average of 4207’, providing a useful comparison. Data from USGS, NASA, and references 3,21,62.
Saline lakes are highly vulnerable to water overuse because they depend on a delicate
balance between streamflow and evaporation. Consequently, there is a strong relationship
between the area of irrigated agriculture in a saline lake’s watershed and the severity of its
shrinkage53. Agriculture began affecting Great Salt Lake levels in the mid 1800s38. However, it
wasn’t until the 1900s that humans became the dominant force controlling the lake3,23,59.
Federal and state construction of dams, canals, and pipelines in the 1900s allowed more of the
watershed’s natural runoff to be diverted for agricultural, industrial, and municipal use3,38,53.
These subsidized water projects led to unsustainable water consumption42,63 and plummeting
lake levels through the 1960s1,3. An extremely uncommon wet period in the 1980s temporarily
refilled the lake1,23, but since peaking in 1987, it has been in steady decline (Fig. 4).
Over the last three years, the lake has received less than a third of its natural streamflow
because of excessive water diversions (Fig. 5)60. In 2022, the lake dropped to a record
elevation of 4188’—the lowest level on the state’s contingency charts10,18,64. The depletion of
water is even more severe than it appears because groundwater is not included in these
estimates. Approximately 26 million acre-feet have been lost from the lake itself, but twice that
amount may have been lost from the aquifers around the lake due to water table drop65. These
empty aquifers could slow the rate of rebound after runoff is increased.
Figure 5.
Great Salt Lake water budget, including a breakdown of consumptive water use. The reported numbers
represent estimates from 2020-2022, the period of accelerated decline1,3,25,60,62,66,67. Because of inadequate
monitoring and data availability, many of these estimates are uncertain.
Like most saline lakes, Great Salt Lake has a large watershed crossing multiple jurisdictions
(Fig. 6)2,30,68. The 23-million-acre watershed is divided into four main basins, with the Bear,
Jordan, and Weber watersheds contributing almost all surface water inflow (Fig. 6). Irrigated
agriculture covers 1.4 million acres or 6% of the watershed. 63% of this agricultural land
occurs in Utah, 31% in Idaho, 5% in Wyoming, and 1% in Nevada. Urban development covers
0.7 million acres or 3% of the watershed area, with 93% occurring in Utah.
Agriculture dominates water use in the Great Salt Lake watershed (Fig. 5)25,26,69. Irrigation of
alfalfa and other crops directly accounts for around three quarters of total consumptive water
use plus 5-10% indirectly through storage and transport losses such as reservoir
evaporation1,3,66. Mineral extraction from the lake itself represents another 9% of water use (Fig.
7). Cities and industry account for the final 9% of consumptive water use, of which 90% is
outdoor water use (irrigation for lawns and other decorative plants). The remainder of the
consumptive use comes from thermoelectric power production, mining, and other industrial
processes25,70. Indoor water use has little direct effect on lake level because ~95% is returned
after wastewater treatment, though the storage, conveyance, and treatment of water used
indoors does cause consumptive losses and degradation of water quality25,71.
Figure 6
. Map of the Great Salt Lake watershed, including the most extensive land uses (agricultural and urban).
Climate change is a secondary contributor to the decline of Great Salt Lake. Human
greenhouse gas emissions have caused ~4°F of warming in northern Utah since 1900 and
exacerbated drought in the southwestern U.S.66,7274. This climate change has reduced runoff to
Great Salt Lake and increased evaporation, accounting for ~9% of the lake’s decline based on
current estimates2,23,43,66. Streamflow is projected to decrease in the future, making water
conservation even more important66,75,76. We need to plan for a drier Utah.
Figure 7.
Evaporation ponds on the east side of the lake seen from the International Space Station. Water is taken
from the lake to accelerate evaporation and extract potash fertilizer, magnesium, sulfate, table salt, and other
minerals. Photo: Alexander Gerst, ESA.
Consequences of losing the lake
Irrigated agriculture is destroying saline lakes on every continent except Antarctica2,30,53,68.
Examples from around the world show potential consequences of Great Salt Lake collapse.
The loss of a saline lake sets off a sequence of environmental and economic damage that is
extremely difficult to reverse2,30,33. Specific consequences depend on local circumstances but
often include air and water pollution, collapse of agricultural productivity, loss of industry,
economic depression, and devastation of lake and wetland ecosystems1,33,34,7779.
Even when a lake is not completely lost, shrinkage can expose lakebed sediments laden with
heavy metals and organic pollutants1,80. At the bottom of their large watersheds, saline lake
sediments collect pollutants from human activities and natural sources including coal burning,
mining, agriculture, and urban runoff. The following pollutants have been detected in Great Salt
Lake sediment: arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel, chromium, lead, copper, selenium, organic
contaminants, and cyanotoxins12,13,32,8187. These pollutants can be transported by dust particles
smaller than 10 microns (1/5th the width of a hair)84. Particulate matter from dried lakebeds can
increase rates of chronic and acute diseases associated with air pollution, including
reproductive disfunction, developmental defects, cognitive impairment, cardiovascular
damage, and cancer14,35,88,89. Air pollution already causes 1-in-5 deaths globallyaround 12.1
million premature deaths annually88,90and dried lakebeds can erase air quality improvements
that took decades to achieve79,9193. Increased dust deposition in the watershed can also
damage agricultural crops, degrade soil fertility, and cause premature snowmelt when
deposited on snowpack (Fig. 8)12,13,94.
Figure 8.
Dust from drying saline lakes. Left: Mar Chiquita, Argentina (NASA, Jeff Schmaltz). Upper right: Owens
Lake, California (Brian Russell). Lower right: dust darkens snowpack in the Rockies causing early melt (NASA).
Ecological damage from losing a saline lake is extreme2,68. Changes in water extent, depth,
and chemistry can disrupt or destroy local food webs, often causing continental-scale
impacts1,2,28. The loss of evaporation from the lake can modify nearby climate, producing more
extreme temperature swings, desertification, and further reduction of runoff49,81,95,96. Together
these effects can severely harm communities in the watershed of a shrinking lake, triggering
abrupt crashes of lake industries, suppression of property values, mass migration, and social
conflict associated with the loss of jobs, cultural identity, and quality of life2,11,31,97.
Figure 9.
A juvenile gull feeds on brine flies, which depend on microbialite habitat that is being destroyed by
desiccation and salination. Photo: Mary Anne Karren.
Great Salt Lake is showing many of the symptoms of socioecological collapse, and these
negative effects will grow more severe if water flow is not rapidly restored to the lake:
Food web collapse
: The salinity of the main body of the lake has climbed to ~19%. At
this level, the brine flies and brine shrimp cannot maintain their populations because of
decreased primary productivity (i.e., loss of their food sources) and direct inhibition of
their life cycles98102. These invertebrates feed migratory birds and support much of the
lake’s industry1. Brine fly populations declined dramatically in 2022, and brine shrimp
are expected to decline in 202328,103.
Erosion of economic activity
: At levels the lake may reach in 2023 and 2024,
withdrawing water from the lake for mineral extraction could be unviable. Additionally, if
the lake’s bird species are listed under the Endangered Species Act, economic activity
may be stopped by federal regulation. In particular, Wilson’s Phalaropes and Eared
Grebes are threatened by Great Salt Lake’s decline28. A recent economic analysis for
the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council estimated that the drying lake could cost Utah
$1.7 to $2.2 billion annually and destroy 6,600 jobs10.
Air pollution and dirty snow
: The salty crust deposited by the drying lake temporarily
delays dust release. However, as more of the lakebed is exposed for longer, air
pollution will increase throughout the Intermountain West84. Dust from Great Salt Lake
has already been observed from southern Utah to Wyoming, and most of the dust in the
Wasatch Front already comes from dry lakebed12,13,84,104. Saline lake dust causes acute
local air pollution and harms crops and snowpack (Fig. 8)12,13,94.
Figure 10.
Gunnison Island and the receding hypersaline water of Great Salt Lake’s North Arm. With the island
connected to the mainland, predators can access the island’s colony of American white pelicans, which is one of
the largest in the world105. Photo: EcoFlight.
The lake’s North Arm is a warning of what the future could hold unless streamflow is restored.
Cut off by a railroad causeway in 1959, the North Arm receives almost no surface runoff106,107.
The lack of freshwater flow caused salinity to reach saturation, killing the microbialites and
algae that form the base of the lake’s food web. The disrupted lake circulation temporarily
caused the highest methylmercury levels in the country1,108113. Water conservation could
prevent this fate for the rest of the lake and restore health to the compromised North Arm.
New conservation tools and commitments
Recent changes in water law and policy have created new tools for water conservation and
conveyance to Great Salt Lake22,50,114. These improvements include designating instream flow
and sovereign lands as beneficial uses, more funding for agricultural efficiency, and enhanced
monitoring of water use (Table 2). These updates allow farmers and other water users to leave
water in the streams and rivers without losing water rights. The 2022 legislative session
committed record funds, and Governor Cox has called for an additional ~$350 million for
Great-Salt-Lake-related measures in the 2023 budget50,115. Likewise, federal support has grown
through grants, the Saline Lake Ecosystems Act, and the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act114,116.
In addition to legislative changes, many cities, counties, conservancy districts, businesses,
and community organizations are implementing major water conservation measures4446,71.
Government, nonprofit, and private organizations are coming together, including the Utah
Department of Natural Resources, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Great Salt
Lake Advisory Council, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, the Natural Resources
Conservation Service, the Great Salt Lake Strike Team, Friends of Great Salt Lake, and the
Great Salt Lake Collaborative. Together, these and other groups have elevated public
awareness for Great Salt Lake conservation through dozens of events and initiatives28,66.
Figure 11.
A child explores rock formations on the shore of Great Salt Lake. Photo: Angie Hatch.
While the changes above will likely contribute to water conservation in the coming decades,
they are not adequate to help the lake through its current crisis. In fact, if legal, financial, and
technical support is not provided for water users to implement these changes, the new policies
could have little to no influence on Great Salt Lake in 2023 and 2024. For example,
conservation in 2022 increased streamflow to the lake by less than 100,000 acre-feet, with
most conserved water held in reservoirs or consumed elsewhere in the watershed37,62.
Table 2. Water legislation from 2022 pertinent to the Great Salt Lake emergency response
HB33: Instream Water
Flow Amendments
Increases flexibility in use of water rights,
designating instream flow for use on sovereign
lands as beneficial
Allows water users to return rights to the lake
without losing their shares up to 10 years at a time
HB410: Great Salt Lake
Watershed Enhancement
$40 million trust to support voluntary
transactions and projects to enhance or
preserve water flows to the lake
Empowers FFSL to better study and manage the
lake, including working with stakeholders
HB429: Integrated GSL
Watershed Assessment
Produce a status, use, and conservation report
by November 2022
Could identify areas where further information is
needed and guide water conservation efforts
HB168: Preferences of
Water Rights
Enacts a provision for the use of water during a
temporary water shortage emergency
Could allow the state to clarify how water rights
should be administered during shortages
HB242: Secondary
Water Metering
Requires nearly all providers of secondary
water to install meters by 2030
Could encourage conservation and potential
pricing of secondary water
S. 1466: Saline Lake
Ecosystems in the Great
Basin States
Establishes a program through the USGS to
assess, monitor, and improve management of
saline lakes
Gathers information about Great Salt Lake
hydrology and biodiversity, including shortcomings
in current measurements and models
Legislation from other years overviewed in 22, and additional details for 2022 available in reference 50.
Call for a coordinated rescue
An emergency response plan needs to be put in action during the first half of this year to avoid
catastrophic changes in the Great Salt Lake system. The lake is currently 10 feet below its
minimum healthy elevation based on the state’s management matrix, representing a shortfall of
6.9 million acre-feet (Fig. 4)21,51. Streamflow to the lake needs to be dramatically increased in
2023 and 2024 to reverse the lake’s collapse.
Based on the best available hydrological and societal-impacts data21,22,47,51,52,62, we recommend
setting a minimum streamflow requirement of 2.5 million acre-feet per year. River flow at or
above this threshold corresponds strongly with periods of lake elevation rise (Fig. 12). This is
approximately one million acre-feet per year more than the annual average streamflow to the
lake (1.6 million acre-feet per year since 2020)21,60,62. Depending on future weather conditions,
this could require 0.7 to 1.2 million acre-feet per year of conservation, representing a 30 to
50% reduction in consumptive water use in the watershed (Fig. 5).
Figure 12.
Streamflow to Great Salt Lake and annual lake elevation since 1981. The vertical shading shows years
when streamflow equaled or exceeded our proposed minimum flow requirement of 2.5 million acre-feet per year.
The remainder of this report describes general approaches and specific actions to equip our
community to face this challenge. No single intervention or organization can solve this crisis on
its own, and we invite each person and institution to do all they can. Above-average snowfall
this winter could provide a desperately needed jumpstart towards 2.5 million acre-feet, but only
if we seize the day and make sure the water reaches the lake.
Principles for sustainable water management
Over the past century, the fields of global hydrology and water security have generated
important insights about resilient water management38,42,49,75,117119. This includes a large body of
literature on Great Salt Lake and similar saline lakes around the world (see references at the
end of the report)1,30,68. In this section, we summarize a few of the general approaches we find
most relevant to Great Salt Lake.
Learn > Conserve > Augment
Water scarcity is the difference between demand and supply120. Our first instinct when faced
with scarcity is often to increase supply through “hard-pathsolutions like dams and pipelines.
However, experience from around the world has shown that augmentation (increasing supply)
should be a last resort118,121. Sustainable water management recommends the following
prioritized steps to strengthen water security in a given region42,122:
: Carefully study the physical, biological, and social dimensions of water
: Systematically eliminate water waste and overuse
: Increase supply as little as necessary after exhausting steps 1 and 2
There are many ecological and economic reasons to follow this sequence. Large-scale water
infrastructure is extremely expensive, and water projects are notorious for
“cost overruns,
benefit shortfalls, and the systematic underestimation of risk”
123. Even when projects are
completed as intended, they are often scaled incorrectly because of inadequate consideration
of hydrological variability and changes in water demand63,124. This can cause water
overallocation, leaving a community with more problems than before the project123,125,126. This is
especially true in a world of rapid land use and climate change, where many water projects are
obsolete before completion43. Finally, water augmentation in one region requires water
depletion in another, shifting rather than resolving scarcity31,49,127.
Figure 13.
A family enjoys the buoyancy of Great Salt Lake’s saline water. Photo: Kevin Hehl.
The Great Salt Lake watershed provides multiple examples of hard-path water compromises,
including Bangerter’s pumps, a federally-subsidized and oversized reservoir system whose
storage and conveyance losses equal total municipal water use, and interbasin transfers that
are accelerating the decline of the Colorado River while inducing local consumption63,71,128130.
Thankfully, wise managers and citizens have helped us dodge many silver bullet “solutions,”
including persistent proposals for new reservoirs and pipelines such as the Bear River
Development and repeated attempts to fill in our watershed’s freshwater lakes to reduce
Rather than increasing supply, it is almost always more cost effective and resilient to decrease
demand39,122,132. This is a hydrological application of the principle of
living within our means
Conservation initiatives such as water pricing, water markets, and consumption caps often
achieve their goals ahead of schedule and under budget39,46,133. For example, a recent analysis
of water use in the Great Salt Lake watershed estimated that conservation could return
adequate water to the lake for a total cost of $14 to $96 million$5 to $32 per person in the
watershed132. The use of open water markets where users can freely buy and sell available
water could decrease the conservation cost even further to $6 to $48 million$2 to $16 per
person39,132. Even if these estimates are overly optimistic by an order of magnitude, they blow
augmentation proposals’ return-on-investment out of the water134.
Figure 14
. Simplified version of the state’s Great Salt Lake elevation matrix from the USGS. The full matrix and report
developed by Forestry, Fire, & State Lands is accessible here51.
Nature is the model; naturalness is the goal
The foremost law in ecology is “Nature knows best,” or the law of unintended consequences135.
This law has two major implications for water management. First, the more altered and artificial
a system is, the more rigid and high maintenance it tends to be136. Second, more modification
creates more negative tradeoffs and compromises71,119. The Great Salt Lake ecosystem is
highly modified and managed6,137. From streamflow inputs to wetland water levels, almost every
aspect of its hydrology and chemistry is controlled by people (Fig. 13). These changes were
made with good intentions, but they contribute to the lake’s current crisis1,3,106,138.
A return to a “pristine” pre-human state is neither desirable nor possible119, but we should use
naturalness as an overarching management goal when implementing future changes136. This
approach can increase the chances of success, decrease the likelihood of side effects, and
lay the groundwork for a self-regulating system that is resilient to future natural and human
pressures118,139,140. In practice, this principle should inform goals about the amount and timing
of streamflow to the lake and the area of conservation buffer needed around the lake to allow
natural fluctuation without undue infrastructure damage. For example, the target elevation
range for the lake should be increased to include the lake’s long-term natural level (4207
feet)3,51. By restoring more natural hydrology to Great Salt Lake, levels will rise and there will be
major co-benefits for water and habitat quality in the upstream rivers, lakes, and wetlands (e.g.,
Utah Lake, Jordan River, Weber River, Logan River, and Farmington Bay)71,136,141.
Figure 15.
Complex dikes and flow control structures in the wetlands around the lake. Photo: EcoFlight.
A lake-first approach to water stewardship
Water for the environment has historically been relegated to last place in western water law142
145. However, putting nature last neglects the fact that human flourishing depends on
environmental health78,88,146. Shifting water among different users may treat symptoms of
overuse, but it does not resolve the root problem124,133. To create a sound foundation for our
state, we need to permanently allocate the lake its fair share of water. The water law concept of
prior appropriations
first in time, first in right
could be highly useful to this end. The original
beneficial use of water in our region is the lake itself and the soils, aquifers, and river networks
that make up its watershed. As responsible stewards, we need to establish a binding
environmental flow right for Great Salt Lake133. This right should be based on both lake level
and annual streamflow, to avoid long-term catastrophe and ensure annual ecosystem health51.
Though recognizing the lake’s water right decreases the amount of water available for human
use in a given year, it benefits water users by decreasing uncertainty124. For example, after the
lake’s share is met, remaining water could be distributed based on prior appropriation or a
proportional reduction applied to all shares equally, as was recently approved in Nevada147.
The prior option has the advantage of aligning with current water law in Utah, but the latter
option is more equitable and could create more certainty and economic benefit for a greater
number of users, particularly if coupled with water markets132. Certainty is extremely valuable
when making agricultural and natural resources decisions, and water users might be
supportive of changes that increase certainty even if it means less total water124.
Recognizing Great Salt Lake’s right to exist fills another need that is less tangible but perhaps
more important. This respectful approach to God’s creation is in line with the religious and
cultural teachings of the Indigenous and immigrant peoples of Utah148151. There is no better
way to honor the legacy and foresight of our ancestors and Creator than acting as wise
stewards of the watershed entrusted us.
Figure 16.
Great Salt Lake and its watershed seen from the International Space Station. Photo: Alexander Gerst.
Specific management options
Federal government
1. Increase federal funds available for water conservation in the Great Salt Lake
watershed through existing and new channels (e.g., WIFIA, ARPA, FEMA). We
recommend some specific expenditures under the state government section.
2. Coordinate water use agreements across state lines. Because a third of the
consumptive water use in the Great Salt Lake watershed occurs out of state (Fig. 4),
federal facilitation of conservation may be necessary.
3. Expand monitoring of Great Salt Lake hydrology, including water use and climate.
Current estimates are quite rough for surface and subsurface flow to the lake,
evapotranspiration from the lake and surrounding wetlands, and water consumption
throughout the watershed60,62. This hampers robust estimation of sustainable flow
targets and our ability to measure progress114.
4. Use existing human resources in federal agencies (e.g., BLM, NOAA, NPS, F&W,
USGS, EPA, etc.) to strengthen coordination with state agencies managing the lake.
Current efforts to monitor and manage lakebed, wetlands, and water conservation
efforts suffer from incomplete communication and cooperation, partly because of not
having enough personnel.
Figure 17.
Livestock and water Infrastructure in the Heber Valley. Photo: Ben Abbott.
State government (executive, legislative, agencies)
1. Authorize emergency water releases from reservoirs to increase streamflow to the lake
this year and next. This could include water lease, purchase, or emergency mandate to
stabilize Great Salt Lake and benefit impaired aquatic ecosystems throughout the
watershed. Compensate water wholesalers for associated loss of revenue.
2. Establish a long-term target lake level and a short-term emergency release plan. The
general framework for sustainable lake management has already been developed in
state reports22,51,52. We now need timelines and milestones with legally binding actions
informed by a detailed analysis of how many acre-feet each action will deliver.
3. Create a high-profile website that publicizes overall savings and highlights “water
heroes” who are conserving the most. There could be a conservation goal set each
winter before water is allocated and a progress bar showing water flow to the lake.
4. Use current state employees, temporary hires, and volunteers across divisions to
contact every water user in the watershed to offer conservation resources, legal
briefings on new laws, and an overview of available conservation programs152. Partner
with trusted institutions to expand reach and credibility, such as Extension Services,
church groups, and agricultural organizations.
Figure 18.
A Tundra Swan looks for water at the former shoreline of Great Salt Lake. Photo: Mary Anne Karren.
5. Offer compensation for not growing crops this year and next and support rapid
transitions to less water-intensive crops. Fair compensation could be estimated based
on avoided net profit and deficit irrigation adjustments153.
6. Expand water markets (water banking) to the entire watershed following models
developed for saline lake watersheds39,132.
7. Work with the Utah Water Task Force, UDAF, and other trusted partners to convene
water users and conservancy districts from each major watershed to establish a “law of
the lake” framework with shortfall contingencies. This is how water conflicts were
constructively resolved in the early 2000s in the upper Bear River basin45.
8. Ensure that water saved by state and federal agricultural optimization programs is
permanently designated for the lake. This is one of the mechanisms that allowed the
June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program to acquire senior water rights for Utah
Lake cooperatively with the watersheds agricultural community46,71,154.
9. Expand urban/suburban turf removal programs, including making city and county
incentives dependent on meeting conservation goals.
10. Hire additional agency employees across relevant DNR and DEQ divisions (e.g., FFSL
and the Division of Water Rights). Investment in permanent conservation staffing is
needed for the emergency response and long-term transitions.
11. Implement tiered water pricing and remove property tax subsidies for water use155.
Figure 19.
An American avocet forages for food among desiccated microbialites. Photo: Mary Anne Karren.
Local government (cities, counties, and conservancy districts)
1. Coordinate with state and federal programs to expand awareness and adoption of
water conservation measures at city, business, and individual levels (e.g., localscaping,
turf removal, and sprinkler maintenance).
2. Convene homeowner and home builder associations for briefings on the Great Salt
Lake situation. Ensure county, city, and neighborhood (e.g., HOA) rules and
requirements are updated to encourage or require water conservation.
3. Collaborate with community groups to remove turf, plant native vegetation, and check
for outdoor water waste. Use public assets (e.g., parks, buildings, turf strips, church
lawns etc.) as examples of low water use.
4. Implement tiered water pricing with rates that increase for high use (e.g., low cost for
the “indoor water use” tranche but ramped rates for high outdoor water use).
5. Expand water conservation curriculum and provide opportunities for community
volunteers from schools, clubs, and civic groups.
Organizations and individuals (businesses, churches, nonprofits, etc.)
1. Spread the word about Great Salt Lake and the megadrought generally. Create and
share media on the topic and encourage your community groups to get involved.
2. Share water conservation information through formal and informal communication
networks to increase trust and solidarity for those conserving water (e.g., newsletters,
conversations, community events).
3. Convert outdoor vegetation to low or no-irrigation options.
4. Encourage city, county, state, and federal officials to adopt stringent conservation
measures in 2023 and 2024 to reduce outdoor water use.
5. Maintain or remove leaking sprinklers.
Figure 21.
Boaters, birders, and hunters access the lake’s wetlands and shallow bays. Photo: Chandler Rosenberg.
Figure 22.
An Eared Grebe looks to us for leadership. Photo: Mary Anne Karren.
Things not to do
Not all water conservation efforts are created equal. Here are a few counterproductive
interventions that we recommend avoiding:
Artificially decrease evaporation in natural water bodies
. Evaporation from Utah Lake
and Bear Lake is lumped into “reservoir lossesin state water budgets. Unlike artificial
reservoirs, evaporation from natural water bodies serves important ecological functions,
including nutrient removal, microclimate regulation, and downwind precipitation71.
Count on cloud seeding to solve our water shortage
. Despite decades of research,
cloud seeding remains an experimental and unproven approach. Of the three valid
randomized tests of cloud seeding, only one showed increased precipitation, and that
study did not consider regional effects from upwind seeding40,41,49. Cloud seeding might
redistribute snow marginally, but there is no evidence it will augment precipitation over
a large region like the Great Salt Lake Watershed.
Build more infrastructure
. There continue to be calls to build more reservoirs and
pipelines as a response to the ongoing drought. However, our current situation is not
caused by inadequate surface-water storage. In fact, reservoirs represent a major
source of consumptive water use. We don’t have enough water to keep current
reservoirs full, and most suitable reservoir sites have already been developed.
Wait for rain
. The last time the lake almost hit rock bottom, we were saved by a change
in the weather. A series of wet years or “pluvial” in the 1980s increased runoff (Fig. 12).
Archaeological evidence suggests that this was at least a thousand-year event3,156, and
two recent changes make another pluvial even less likely in the future. First, climate
change has altered weather patterns, decreasing precipitation throughout the American
southwest74. This has resulted in the most severe drought in the dendrochronological
recordat least 1,200 years72,73,76. Based on previous megadroughts, this weather
pattern could be the new normal until we restore Earth’s climate75,157161. Second,
increased temperatures are reducing the amount of water available for human
consumptive use. Climate change will reduce available runoff and groundwater flow to
the lake more in the coming decades66, making conservation even more important.
Cut our losses
. There have been discussions of sacrificing the lake’s North Arm to avoid
reducing water consumption. This has been described as the “Aral Sea solution,”
referencing drastic measures taken by the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan to limit
damage as that lake collapsed from excessive irrigation1,38. Closing the causeway
would sacrifice the pelican colony on Gunnison Island, shut down mineral extraction in
the North Arm, create a major source of toxic dust, and potentially trigger another
period of mercury methylation as the waters recede38,108,110.
Figure 23.
Sunset over an exposed microbialite reef. Photo: Mary Anne Karren.
What we need more than water
Perhaps the biggest deficit we have in facing this crisis is trust. Conservation measures have
been taken throughout the watershed, but many water users and providers do not yet trust
each other to shepherd conserved water to the lake. We desperately need transparency and
shared sacrifice to reinforce trust and solidarity. We hope that this intention comes through in
our writing. Many of us are currently involved in agriculture or have farmer heritage in the Great
Salt Lake watershed. As farming families and communities will be most impacted by changes
necessary to rescue the lake, we need to ensure financial, legal, and professional support for
farmers during this transition.
Facing this crisis will require conservation measures unprecedented in living memory.
Reversing the collapse of the Great Salt Lake system is perhaps the greatest challenge we
have faced in the history of our state. However, history shows that our community is capable of
just this kind of bold collective action. For example, our Indigenous and pioneer predecessors
adapted to natural variability in weather and climate that would have extinguished most
civilizations72,151,162. More recently, when excessive withdrawals caused Utah Lake to go dry in
1934 and 1935, emergency changes to infrastructure and water policy were made, allowing
the lake to refill71,163. We invite all individual Utahns and all organizations in the state to do
everything in your power to protect Great Salt Lake in this time of great need and risk.
Figure 24.
A woman gazes across the lake. Photo: Jared Tamez.
Additional resources
Legal Strategies for the Great Salt Lake
(Key policy document outlining future
responses 2020)
Recommendations to Ensure Adequate Water Flows to Great Salt Lake and Its
(report from the Great Salt Lake Resolution Steering Group (HCR-10) 2020;
executive summary)
Friends of Great Salt Lake
(research, advocacy, and art about the lake 2022)
Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan
(Forestry, Fire & State Lands 2013)
Great Salt Lake Collaborative
(updates and news about the lake 2022)
Commonly asked Questions About Utah’s Great Salt Lake and Ancient Lake Bonneville
(Overview of the lake’s history and status by the Utah Geological Survey 2022)
Water Development, Consumptive Water Uses, and the Great Salt Lake
chapter on water use and conservation options by Null and Wurtsbaugh 2020)
Exploring Utah’s Water
(Extension report on water use in Utah 2016)
Economic Significance of the Great Salt Lake to the State of Utah
(Great Salt Lake
Advisory Council economic assessment 2012)
Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front
(Report on
water use impacts on lake level by Wurtsbaugh and others) 2016)
Water for Great Salt Lake
(Great Salt Lake Advisory Council report comparing
strategies to increase lake level 2017)
Utah Division of Water Resources (Lake overview and link to multiple resources 2022)
Conservation Impacts Study
(Great Salt Lake Advisory Council report on effectiveness
of conservation 2020)
Utah Water Science Center
(United States Geological Survey resources on the Great
Salt Lake 2022)
UDNR 2-pager on the Great Salt Lake
Great Salt Lake Hydro Mapper
(Live data portal 2022)
Great Salt Lake Advisory Council Activities
(Compilation of reports)
Municipal and Industrial Water Use in Utah
(Detailed analysis of nonagricultural water
use throughout the state 2010)
Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program
Figure 25.
A Mallard looks for threats from the shore. Photo: Mary Anne Karren.
We thank the thousands of dedicated workers in state, federal, nonprofit, and private sector
positions who protect Great Salt and its watershed through study, management, education,
industry, and recreation. We also thank the hundreds of committed leaders who have put in
place policies and cultivated a culture of conservation surrounding Great Salt Lake over many
generations. Thank you for your service and vision. We are grateful to more than a dozen
independent experts who reviewed this report, primarily during the 2022 Christmas holiday.
Thank you for using your expertise and time in the service of our community.
None of the coauthors of this report were paid for their efforts, several coauthors were able to
donate their time thanks to support from the US National Science Foundation (grants EAR-
2011439 and EAR-2012123) and state initiatives such as the Utah Department of Natural
Resources Watershed Restoration Initiative.
Figure 26.
An American avocet nestles into the lifegiving waters of Great Salt Lake. Photo: Mary Anne Karren.
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Figure 27.
A flock of American white pelicans set off for a day of foraging. Photo: Chandler Rosenberg.
... The lake has endured several wet and dry cycles over its recorded history, but in late 2022, water levels hit record lows and salinity hit record highs (USGS 2023). As summarized by Abbott et al. (2023), in recent years Great Salt Lake has receded as a result of excessive water use and drought. The lower lake levels significantly affect the regional ecology and have potential negative environmental, health, and economic impacts. ...
... Researchers have recommended that the lake needs an additional 1.5 × 10 9 m 3 /yr to recover (Abbott et al. 2023). We assume one-third of that flow (0.5 × 10 9 m 3 /yr) could come by pumping water from the Pacific Ocean and the remainder could come from within the watershed. ...
Great Salt Lake has receded in recent years. Among many options proposed to augment inflows is a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean. To inform discussion, we estimate a lower bound for the ongoing energy requirements, assuming one-third of the recommended additional inflow will be pumped through a single, smooth, large-diameter diameter pipeline along a fictitious, shortest route without mountains. Accordingly, pumping would require at least 400 megawatts of electricity during operation, an amount equivalent to a large power plant, or 11% of Utah’s annual electricity demand. Given current energy prices and fuel mixes, the electricity would cost over $300,000,000 annually and emit nearly 1,000,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to 200,000 passenger vehicles. The figures could easily triple with longer routes, mountainous terrain, higher flows, smaller diameters, multiple pipelines, less-efficient pumps, and any required treatment. We present this estimate trusting that feasibility studies will include complete details.
... The lake has endured several wet and dry cycles over its recorded history, but in late 2022, water levels hit record lows and salinity hit record highs (USGS 2023). As summarized by Abbott et al. (2023), in recent years Great Salt Lake has receded as a result of excessive water use and drought. The lower lake levels significantly affect the regional ecology and have potential negative environmental, health, and economic impacts. ...
... Researchers have recommended that the lake needs an additional 1.5 × 10 9 m 3 /yr to recover (Abbott et al. 2023). We assume one-third of that flow (0.5 × 10 9 m 3 /yr) could come by pumping water from the Pacific Ocean and the remainder could come from within the watershed. ...
Great Salt Lake has receded in recent years. Among many options proposed to augment inflows is a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean. To inform discussion, we estimate a lower bound for the ongoing energy requirements, assuming one-third of the recommended additional inflow will be pumped through a single, smooth, large-diameter diameter pipeline along a fictitious, shortest route without mountains. Accordingly, pumping would require at least 400 megawatts of electricity during operation, an amount equivalent to a large power plant, or 11% of Utah’s annual electricity demand. Given current energy prices and fuel mixes, the electricity would cost over $300,000,000 annually and emit nearly 1,000,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to 200,000 passenger vehicles. The figures could easily triple with longer routes, mountainous terrain, higher flows, smaller diameters, multiple pipelines, less-efficient pumps, and any required treatment. We present this estimate trusting that feasibility studies will include complete details.
Great Salt Lake hosts an ecosystem that is critical to migratory birds and international aquaculture, yet it is currently threatened by falling lake elevation and high lakewater salinity resulting from water diversions in the upstream watershed and the enduring megadrought in the western United States. Microbialite reefs underpin the ecosystem, hosting a surface microbial community that is estimated to contribute 30% of the lake’s primary productivity. We monitored exposure, desiccation, and bleaching over time in an area of microbialite reef. During this period, lake elevation fell by 1.8 m, and salinity increased from 11.0% to 19.5% in open-water portions of the outer reef, reaching halite saturation in hydrologically closed regions. When exposed, microbialite bleaching was rapid, driven by a decrease in surface chlorophyll. Bleached microbialites are not necessarily dead, however, with communities persisting beneath microbialite surfaces for several months of exposure and desiccation. However, superficial losses in the mat community resulted in enhanced microbialite weathering. In addition, we conducted microbialite community recovery experiments by incubating bleached microbialite pieces in lakewater and measuring changes in extractable pigments and DNA over time. We observed rapid recovery at salinities ≤ 17%, approaching 50% recovery within 40 days. 16S and 18S rRNA gene sequencing of extracted DNA indicated that recovery was driven by initial seeding from lakewater. At higher salinity levels, recovery occurred more slowly and may reflect accumulation and preservation of lake material in halite crusts vs. true recovery. Our results indicate that increased water input should be prioritized in order to return the lake to an elevation that submerges microbialite reefs and lowers salinity levels. Without quick action to reverse diversions in the watershed, loss of pelagic microbial community members due to sustained high salinity could prevent the recovery of the ecosystem-critical microbialite surface communities in Great Salt Lake.
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Protecting and restoring the degraded arid lakes are globally urgent issues. We document a potential recovery of the dried salt-lake, Lop Nur called "the Sea of Death" which is located at the terminus of the largest inland basin in China, the Tarim River Basin. The changes and relationship of surface water with climate parameters and groundwater in the basin over the last 30 years are analyzed, by using satellite remote sensing and land data assimilation products. We find that with increased surface water in the basin, the groundwater level in Lop Nur began to show an obvious positive response in 2015; and the rate of decline of the groundwater level is slowing down. We argue that after a balance is achieved between regional groundwater recharge and evapotranspiration, the Lop Nur ecosystem will gradually recover. This study shows an encouraging case for the protection and restoration of degraded lakes in dryland regions around the world.
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The formation of the Aralkum (Aral Desert), following the severe desiccation of the former Aral Sea since the 1960s, has created what may be regarded as one of the world's most significant anthropogenic dust sources. In this paper, focusing on dust emission and transport patterns from the Aralkum, the dust life‐cycle has been simulated over Central Asia using the aerosol transport model COSMO‐MUSCAT (COnsortium for Small‐scale MOdelling‐MUltiScale Chemistry Aerosol Transport Model), making use of the Global Surface Water data set to take into account the sensitivity to changes in surface water coverage over the region between the 1980s (the “past”) and the 2010s (the “present”). Over a case study 1‐year period, the simulated dust emissions from the Aralkum region increased from 14.3 to 27.1 Tg year⁻¹ between the past and present, an increase driven solely by the changes in the surface water environment. Of these simulated modern emissions, 14.5 Tg are driven by westerly winds, indicating that regions downwind to the east may be worst affected by Aralkum dust. However a high degree of interannual variability in the prevailing surface wind patterns ensures that these transport patterns of Aralkum dust do not occur every year. Frequent cloud cover poses substantial challenges for observations of Central Asian dust: in the Aralkum, over two‐thirds of the yearly emissions are emitted under overcast skies, dust which may be impossible to observe using traditional satellite or ground‐based passive remote sensing techniques. Furthermore, it is apparent that the pattern of dust transport from the Aralkum under clear‐sky conditions is not representative of the pattern under all‐sky conditions.
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Forum papers are thought-provoking opinion pieces or essays founded in fact, sometimes containing speculation, on a civil engineering topic of general interest and relevance to the readership of the journal. The views expressed in this Forum article do not necessarily reflect the views of ASCE or the Editorial Board of the journal.
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Many saline lakes throughout the world are shrinking due to overexploitation of water in their drainage basins. Among them are two of the world’s largest saline lakes, the U.S.A.’s Great Salt Lake, and Iran’s Lake Urmia. Here we provide a comparative analysis of the desiccation of these two lakes that provides insights on management decisions that may help save them and that are relevant to saline lake management worldwide. Great Salt Lake and Lake Urmia were once remarkably similar in size, depth, salinity, and geographic setting. High rates of population growth in both basins have fueled a demand for irrigated agriculture and other uses. In the Great Salt Lake basin, this development began in the late 1800’s and is continuing. The lake’s volume has decreased by 67%, with 75% of the loss driven by water development and 25% by a millennial drought which may portend the start of global climate change impacts. This has greatly increased salinities to 180 g·L−1 stressing the invertebrates in the lake on which birds depend. Only 1% of people in the basin are employed in agriculture; thus, reducing the demand for irrigation development. Population densities in the Urmia basin are double those of the Great Salt Lake basin, and 28% of people are employed in agriculture. These demographics have led to a rapid increase in reservoir construction since 2000 and the subsequent loss of 87% of Lake Urmia’s volume. The water development of Lake Urmia was later, but much faster than that of Great Salt Lake, causing Urmia’s salinity to increase from 190 to over 350 g·L−1 in just 20 years, with subsequent severe ecological decline. Dust storms from the exposed lakebeds of both systems threaten the health of the surrounding populations. To save these lakes and others will require: (1) transparent and collaborative involvement with local interest groups; (2) shifts away from an agricultural-based economy to one based on manufacturing and services; (3) consideration of the diverse ecosystem services of the lakes including mineral extraction, recreation, bird habitats in surrounding wetlands, and dust control.
Technical Report
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Water use in the United States in 2015 was estimated to be about 322 billion gallons per day (Bgal/d), which was 9 percent less than in 2010. The 2015 estimates put total withdrawals at the lowest level since before 1970, following the same overall trend of decreasing total withdrawals observed from 2005 to 2010. Freshwater withdrawals were 281 Bgal/d, or 87 percent of total withdrawals, and saline-water withdrawals were 41.0 Bgal/d, or 13 percent of total withdrawals. Fresh surface-water withdrawals (198 Bgal/d) were 14 percent less than in 2010, and fresh groundwater withdrawals (82.3 Bgal/day) were about 8 percent greater than in 2010. Saline surface-water withdrawals were 38.6 Bgal/d, or 14 percent less than in 2010. Total saline groundwater withdrawals in 2015 were 2.34 Bgal/d, mostly for mining use.
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The Lancet Commission on pollution and health reported that pollution was responsible for 9 million premature deaths in 2015, making it the world's largest environmental risk factor for disease and premature death. We have now updated this estimate using data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuriaes, and Risk Factors Study 2019. We find that pollution remains responsible for approximately 9 million deaths per year, corresponding to one in six deaths worldwide. Reductions have occurred in the number of deaths attributable to the types of pollution associated with extreme poverty. However, these reductions in deaths from household air pollution and water pollution are offset by increased deaths attributable to ambient air pollution and toxic chemical pollution (ie, lead). Deaths from these modern pollution risk factors, which are the unintended consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation, have risen by 7% since 2015 and by over 66% since 2000. Despite ongoing efforts by UN agencies, committed groups, committed individuals, and some national governments (mostly in high-income countries), little real progress against pollution can be identified overall, particularly in the low-income and middle-income countries, where pollution is most severe. Urgent attention is needed to control pollution and prevent pollution-related disease, with an emphasis on air pollution and lead poisoning, and a stronger focus on hazardous chemical pollution. Pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss are closely linked. Successful control of these conjoined threats requires a globally supported, formal science–policy interface to inform intervention, influence research, and guide funding. Pollution has typically been viewed as a local issue to be addressed through subnational and national regulation or, occasionally, using regional policy in higher-income countries. Now, however, it is increasingly clear that pollution is a planetary threat, and that its drivers, its dispersion, and its effects on health transcend local boundaries and demand a global response. Global action on all major modern pollutants is needed. Global efforts can synergise with other global environmental policy programmes, especially as a large-scale, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy is an effective strategy for preventing pollution while also slowing down climate change, and thus achieves a double benefit for planetary health.
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This article is a product of a collaboration between ecosystem scientists and energy system modelers. It is currently in review at Nature Geoscience. The main points are: 1. Climate mitigation goals of 1.5-2°C are not adequate given current understanding of ecosystem sensitivity to climate and the high social costs of carbon emissions. 2. More aggressive goals of climate restoration (what we call getting back to the Holocene) have not been fully considered because of political and technological obstacles as well as disciplinary divides between energy system and Earth system researchers. 3. The renewable revolution has fundamentally transformed the climate response space, opening pathways back to the Holocene if we ensure strategic financing and policy prioritization of clean electrification. The paper provides an update for the Earth system research community of changes in global energy—including observations that renewable energy cost and rollout assumptions in current integrated assessment models are off by an order of magnitude and three decades. This results in unrealistically pessimistic projections of clean energy transitions with fundamental implications for climate targets and planning. For the energy research community, the paper summarizes new research on marine and terrestrial ecosystem response to sub-1.5°C levels of warming, including updated estimates of icesheet destabilization thresholds and carbon sink dynamics. More specifically, we propose a new metric for climate risk (gigaton-years) and compare the costs and risks of two "clean electrification" scenarios with standard Shared Socioeconomic Pathways. We finish by outlining specific policy actions and research priorities to accelerate the renewable revolution.
Through 2019, the Caspian Sea excluded, the majority (54–60%) of Earth’s irrigation-impacted endorheic lake and sea (ELS) areal extent has been lost in basins that contain as much as 20% of global irrigated agricultural land. Estimates of irrigated agriculture contribution to ELS desiccation based on a steady-state water balance equation for endorheic basins generally agree that this contribution is on the order of 70–90% at the global scale. However, large uncertainties or errors in attribution – as large as 100% – are observed with respect to particular ELS, suggesting that attributions based on a single irrigated agriculture dataset, should be treated cautiously. The observed areal contraction in ELS attributed to irrigated agriculture corresponds to an estimated one-third decrease in ELS volume, excluding the Caspian Sea. Such volumetric decrease is expected to at least double solute concentration in 40–47% of Earth’s ELS.
Exceptional drought events, known as megadroughts, have occurred on every continent outside Antarctica over the past ~2,000 years, causing major ecological and societal disturbances. In this Review, we discuss shared causes and features of Common Era (Year 1–present) and future megadroughts. Decadal variations in sea surface temperatures are the primary driver of megadroughts, with secondary contributions from radiative forcing and land–atmosphere interactions. Anthropogenic climate change has intensified ongoing megadroughts in south-western North America and across Chile and Argentina. Future megadroughts will be substantially warmer than past events, with this warming driving projected increases in megadrought risk and severity across many regions, including western North America, Central America, Europe and the Mediterranean, extratropical South America, and Australia. However, several knowledge gaps currently undermine confidence in understanding past and future megadroughts. These gaps include a paucity of high-resolution palaeoclimate information over Africa, tropical South America and other regions; incomplete representations of internal variability and land surface processes in climate models; and the undetermined capacity of water-resource management systems to mitigate megadrought impacts. Addressing these deficiencies will be crucial for increasing confidence in projections of future megadrought risk and for resiliency planning. © 2022, This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign
Unsustainable agriculture practices are undermining the world's future ability to reliably produce food. Assistance programmes, such as those offered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of the United States, can increase the uptake of sustainable practices, yet implementation of these alternatives in the US remains discouragingly limited. In this context, we used an interdisciplinary approach involving quantitative and qualitative data to assess the current efficacy of NRCS assistance programmes and identify areas for improvement. To do so, we first analyzed national reports of NRCS expenditures and acres treated over the last 15 years and then distributed an explorative survey to farmers and ranchers throughout Utah state. Our NRCS programme analysis suggested that historical increases in expenditures have been ineffective at increasing the number of acres treated. The survey responses indicated that both financial and non-financial factors were influential in farmer decisions. Farmers that assigned a high importance to sustainable practices were motivated by public perception and environmental stewardship while those that assigned a moderate importance were motivated by the potential return on investment. Overall, participants in NRCS programs reported more positive outcomes than expected by non-participants. We hope the findings from this study can guide future research and inform efforts to improve NRCS assistance programmes in Utah and other regions in the US and elsewhere.