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Chen Wang, Deseret News
Water in the Great Salt Lake is only 3 feet higher than its lowest recorded level. Experts worry misuse of water and diversion of flows into the lake will do harm.

Is America's "Dead Sea" — The Great Salt Lake — dying?

Although the Great Salt Lake hasn't dried up — yet, a Weber State University geography professor has concluded it is in real danger if something doesn't change.

In an article titled "The Great Salt Lake: America's Aral Sea?" in the September/October issue of Environment Magazine, Daniel Bedford wonders if the Great Salt Lake could become "an icon of 21st century American water problems in the same way that the Aral Sea became an icon of global water problems in the twentieth century."

The Aral Sea in central Asia — another saline lake — lost 90 percent of its volume between 1960 and 2006 due to mismanagement and diversion, Bedford wrote.

"The shrinking sea and drying wetlands devastated the local economy and ecology, and loose sediments from the exposed Aral Sea bed were blown into pesticide-laced salt and dust storms that damaged crops, plants and the health of humans and animals to distances of some 300 miles downwind," Bedford wrote in his article.

"Even the typically restrained academic literature used terms like 'disaster,' 'catastrophe,' and 'tragedy' to describe the Aral Sea situation," Bedford wrote.

He stressed the Great Salt Lake is not yet comparable to the Aral Sea in terms of environmental degradation.

"However, future water management challenges, a local tendency to undervalue the Great Salt Lake, and discouraging examples from elsewhere in the western United States suggest that there are legitimate reasons to worry that it may be on a similar trajectory," he wrote.

"The lake needs more attention," said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake. She believe's Bedford's comparison to the Aral Sea adds a level of urgency to creation of a permanent Great Salt Lake Commission.

The Great Salt Lake currently sits at 4,194.4 feet above sea level. The average level is 4,200 feet.

The lake's all-time low was only 3 feet lower in 1963 and its highest level was more than 17 feet higher in 1986-87. The lake is a closed basin — with no outlet — and water that goes into it can only leave by evaporation.

The Utah Division of Water Resources also wants a pipeline 12 feet in diameter to deliver water from the Bear River (which is the Great Salt Lake's greatest inflow) to thirsty Wasatch Front residents by about the year 2030. That pipeline would further limit how much water the lake receives each year.

At its 1963 historic low, the shallow lake only covered 950 square miles. Compare that to about 1,700 square miles at its average elevation, or to 3,300 square miles at its historic high.

The Great Salt Lake has only been at or below the 4,194.5-foot elevation mark 14 times in the past 159 years, but three of them have been in the past six years.

Those low level years are 2009, 2008, 2004, 1960-65, 1939-41 and 1936-37.

De Freitas said the Division of Water Resources has done modeling on the relationship between water taken out of the lake and how that affects the lake elevation. For every 100,000 acre-feet of water taken out, or not reaching the lake, the lake level drops by 0.75 feet.

"So it's a serious problem and one that puts large-scale natural processes that maintain the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem health at risk," she said.

"If both man and nature continue on their present course, the GSL will be a small, salty remnant of its former self," Bedford said. "We are squeezing water for the lake from both directions, supply and demand."

To read Bedford's article, go to www.environmentmagazine.org.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com