A view of the Great Salt Lake in 2021. If water levels continue to decline at the current rate, the lake could be dry in five years, researchers found. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
I've Always Wondered ...

If the Great Salt Lake dries up, what would that mean for the U.S. economy?

Janet Nguyen Sep 22, 2023
A view of the Great Salt Lake in 2021. If water levels continue to decline at the current rate, the lake could be dry in five years, researchers found. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Listener and reader Tyler Jaynes from West Valley City, Utah, asks:

I’ve been wondering how the disappearance of the Great Salt Lake would impact the U.S. economy. After all, we haven’t really had to consider the mass migration that would likely result from the toxic dust storms that would fly anywhere from Nevada and Idaho to Colorado and Wyoming, or whether the heavy metals picked up by the wind would eventually find their way into the Colorado River.

In 2022, the Great Salt Lake’s water levels were so low that some boats got stuck. 

“Our motors kept hitting the bottom of the lake, and I had to keep replacing propellers,” said Jeff Manwaring, president of Exclusive Excursions, an outdoor adventure company that offers boat tours on the Great Salt Lake. 

The situation was so bad that at one point, the company had to get a crane to get its boats out. In August, the company shut down its tours for the rest of the year. 

Last year, the Great Salt Lake fell to about 4,188 feet above sea level — its lowest level in recorded history. Typically, the lake’s surface elevation averages around 4,200 feet, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources says. When looking at its depth, there’s just 30 feet of water at its deepest point, according to Smithsonian magazine.

If its rate of decline continues, the lake could dry up in as little as five years, according to a study released this year from a group of researchers at several institutions, including Brigham Young University and Westminster College.

The lake’s disappearance would be disastrous, causing ecological, public health and economic damage to the region. Millions of migratory birds rely on the Great Salt Lake as a resting place and a food source, while multiple industries depend on it, including mineral extraction, tourism and brine shrimp. The latter industry supports the ecosystem and generates millions of dollars in income for its workers.

Edward Barbier, an economics professor at Colorado State University, pointed out that there are toxic materials in the lake like arsenic, mercury and selenium. If they’re exposed, the site could become a toxic dust bowl, Barbier said. 

“It’s going to pose a huge human and animal health risk and hazard,” he said. 

And just like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, people and businesses around it will relocate. “That means land and property values will plummet, and then the whole regional economy and its employment opportunities will suffer in a big way,” he said. 

The lake’s demise could cause economic damage worth $1.7 billion to $2.2 billion a year, according to a 2019 report from ECONorthwest and Martin & Nicholson Environmental Consultants.

Overconsumption and climate change are both seen as culprits in the lake’s declining water levels.

Thousands of lost jobs 

The loss of the mineral extraction industry alone could end up costing $1.3 billion annually and more than 5,300 jobs, according to the ECONorthwest report. 

“There are really three critical minerals that are contained within Great Salt Lake. You have magnesium, potassium and lithium,” said Ben Stireman, deputy director of lands and minerals for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. 

The Great Salt Lake provides the U.S. with nearly all of its magnesium and the world with about 14% of its supply, Stireman said. Magnesium is used to strengthen aluminum in items like aircraft, beverage cans, car parts and stadium benches, Stireman added.

He also noted that the mineral sulfate of potash comes from the lake. It’s used as a fertilizer for high-value crops like almonds and stone fruits. 

If the lake dries up, Stireman said, it would be felt by the agricultural industry in states like California, where those crops are produced. 

The Great Salt Lake also contains lithium, little of which is currently being harvested, but could have “massive potential” for Utah’s economy, Stireman said. If production ramped up, Stireman added, it should be done in a way that conserves water resources. Lithium is expected to play a key role in the United States’ clean energy ambitions, serving as a component in electric car batteries.

Then there’s the brine shrimp industry. Forty-five percent of the world’s brine shrimp is produced in the lake, according to Stireman. Losing this industry could result in an economic toll of $67 million annually.

Stireman noted that when water levels decrease, the water’s salinity spikes, which affects the quality of brine shrimp cysts, or eggs. 

The lake is also a unique recreational attraction. The estimated losses in that industry range between $33.8 million and $81.9 million annually, and the hit to ski resort spending could reach $9.6 million a year. 

We’re already seeing the effects of declining water levels on various industries and businesses including Exclusive Excursions.

President Jeff Manwaring estimates that by ending his tours earlier in the season last year due to the water situation, he may have lost tens of thousands of dollars. The cost to replace propellers, pay for boat maintenance and hire a crane set him back another $2,000 to $3,000.

Addressing the problem 

The Great Salt Lake’s water levels have improved since its record low last year, thanks to an increased snowpack, and now stands at 4,192 feet. That’s good news for Manwaring, who’s been able to run his tours smoothly this year. 

“But we obviously would love to see the lake several feet higher than where it’s at,” Stireman said. 

During Utah’s 2022 legislative season, there were multiple bills aimed at saving the Great Salt Lake, said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Great Salt Lake.

She noted that House Bill 410, for example, created the $40 million Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, aimed at restoring the lake’s ecosystem. The state Division of Water Resources is spearheading the development of the Great Salt Lake Basin Integrated Plan, which will coordinate projects and research aimed at ensuring that the lake has a resilient water supply. 

De Freitas also said there’s potential for water to come from agriculture, since that industry generally “holds the lion’s share of water rights.”

“The bottom line is the future of Great Salt Lake is our future. So what does or doesn’t happen with that system is going to have a direct effect on what does and doesn’t happen for Utah,” she said. 

Because of the health risks that could arise due to declining water levels, Stireman said people who are considering moving to the area have asked him for advice.

“That really never was a question that I had before,” Stireman said. “But as this has become more of an international topic, there are certainly more people who’ve inquired about it.”

So what does he tell them? 

“I tell them that I stay here because I care about the lake and I really love Utah. So I’ve chosen to raise my family here, and I will stand by Great Salt Lake,” Stireman said. 

“It doesn’t mean that I’m not concerned about the dust,” he added. “But I live right on the shore of Great Salt Lake, and it’s something that I’m willing to stick out and try to improve.”

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