College students, faculty collaborate on Great Salt Lake emergency report

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The Great Salt Lake is facing unprecedented danger according to a new report conducted by BYU students and faculty in collaboration with other universities across the state.

Karoline Busche recaps the report. She mentions the Great Salt Lake’s importance to the economy. (Ethan Porter)

The report said the lake currently loses an average of 1.2 million acre-feet per year and at this rate of loss, it is estimated the lake will be gone within the next five years.

The continued population growth in Utah is only going to exacerbate the problem, said Karoline Busche, a BYU environmental science student and contributor to the report.

According to Busche, there is a symbiotic relationship between Utahns and the lake that needs to be maintained. “Whether or not people are religious, this lake was provided for us, and the lake will take care of us only if we take care of the lake first,” Busche said.

The lake is home to 10 million different migratory birds, as well as salt mines and brine shrimp that live in the lake. It provides $2.5 billion in the Utah economy as well as increased precipitation, suppressing toxic dust and supporting 80% of Utah’s wetlands, according to the report.

“In the next 12 to 24 months we could see some serious hazards if we do not start to take care of our lake,” Ben Abbott, assistant professor of plant and wildlife sciences and contributor to the report, said.

Widespread air and water pollution, various species becoming endangered or extinct and declines in economy and agriculture are all potential hazards that could come from the loss of the lake, according to the report. One of the major problems for the lake’s continual water loss is because the lake gets the leftovers, Abbott said.

“We have a lake last approach to the Great Salt Lake and we are proposing that we change that to where the lake gets what it needs first before any water source,” Abbott said.

Overhead shot shows the Great Salt Lake. The lake is currently last to receive its share of water. (Unsplash)

By focusing on the lake first, it will help restore the lake to a healthy water level and help avoid catastrophe. However, it will also decrease the amount of water available for human use each year, according to the report.

The report details how evenly distributing the remaining water supply for human use, as done in Nevada, would be an appropriate solution.

Conserving water is also a very important part of saving the lake from drying up according to Bryan Hopkins, professor of plant and wildlife sciences and contributor to the report.

According to Hopkins, agriculture in Utah is the biggest source of human water use and it has not been adequately addressed. “We need to change some laws because there really isn’t incentives to save water, in fact there have been some disincentives,” Hopkins said.

The average homeowner could fix their irrigation system and cut their water use in half, but they have no incentive to change their system, Hopkins said.

Because the water in Utah is so cheap, Hopkins said he believes increasing the price of water for irrigation, like in Arizona, could be an adequate solution for water conservation in Utah. By increasing the price of water, it would force homeowners and farmers to be more conservative in how much water they used.

Abbott said it is important to not pin the blame on farmers during this time. They need financial, legal and professional support at this time.

“Don’t yell at farmers, they are under pressure at this time with all of the new water conservation laws,” Abbott said.

Another way Utahns can help restore the lake to a healthy level is by communicating with those in the legislative office, Elias Johnson said, a BYU biodiversity and conservation student currently writing a book about the health of the lake.

“BYU students need to be involved in these efforts to protect the lake,” Johnson said.

Voting for leaders who will protect the lake, emailing legislators and representatives and encouraging them to support policies that will reverse the damage to the lake are different ways BYU students can get involved, Johnson said.

Johnson also highlighted the importance of communicating with neighbors and local farmers about the health of the lake. “The more that awareness increases, the more people will be responsible about the health of the lake,” Johnson said.

This crisis will require conservation measures never before seen in the history of Utah, according to the report. It will require sweeping legislation that reverses the damage that has been caused to the lake and cooperation between farmers, legislators and homeowners in Utah to restore the lake to a healthy level.

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