TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere.
But in recent decades its lost 73% of its water and the lake is in uncharted territory.

One look at this satellite comparison below between 1985 – and today – makes it easy to understand the worry.

Great Salt Lake. On the left is 1985 and on the right is late 2022. Credit: European Space Agency

A new report from Brigham Young University warns the lake may disappear in just the next 5 years if the recent rate of decline continues. The reason for the decline is mainly over allocation.

Water rights in the West were enacted around a century ago – when the population was much lower, the need for water was much lower, and the climate was much cooler.

Now, much of the natural water flow – which used to feed into the lake – is diverted to agriculture, industry and cities.

A dry section of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Image: BYU.

A secondary contributor is climate change. Northern Utah has warmed fast – about 4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900 – magnifying the drought, reducing run-off into the lake, and increasing evaporation.

Utah is warming faster than most of the US. Image credit: Climate Central

If the lake is lost, the ramifications are big for the area including the collapse of agriculture, loss of industry and devastation to wildlife, like the extensive bird population.

The birds of the Great Salt Lake. Image: BYU

But perhaps the most dangerous impact of all is air pollution. The lake-bed contains pollutants accumulated over centuries, like arsenic.

High salt content in part of the lake helps bacteria flourish.

The authors warn the winds will carry the polluted dust downwind causing diseases like cancer, heart issues, birth defects and cognitive impairment.

Dust in red. Image BYU

To help solve the issue, the authors call for an emergency response plan with changes to water management, thus allowing the natural flow of water to again reach the lake.

In the longer term, global warming must be reversed, or the future trend of the lake will continue to be downward.