Drought Great Salt Lake

Pelicans gather on an island on Farmington Bay near the Great Salt Lake on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.

(The Center Square) – The Great Salt Lake is drying and it could cost Utah billions of dollars each year, experts said Wednesday at a summit hosted by Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. 

The Great Salt Lake Summit brought together experts and stakeholders from different fields to discuss policy solutions.

“It’s not too late,” said Don Leonard, a member of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. “It is late, but it’s not too late to take reasonable steps to solve this problem.”

Utah’s Great Salt Lake has dropped by a little more than 20 feet over the past 36 years, according to the Utah House Majority. 

Leonard said lost mineral extraction output would cost $1.13 billion and  mitigation for dust problems and other issues could cost anywhere from $192 million to $610 million. Other industries that could be affected include the brine shrimp industry, which is poised to lose $67 million a year, according to Leonard.

Lost recreation output would be $81 million annually, Leonard said. Resorts also are in a precarious spot with the loss of ski days potentially costing up to $10 million.

Utah’s resorts bring in more than 4 million visitors every year, according to Dr. S. McKenzie Skiles, who also spoke at the event. Skiles, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah, said the winter sports industry brings in $1.4 billion each year for the economy. One inch of snowfall is worth $2.8 million, she said.

The cumulative costs of a drying Great Salt Lake could be as high as $32.6 billion over a span of 20 years, Leonard said.

The Great Salt Lake accounts for $375.1 million in total labor income and 7,706 jobs, according to a report for the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.

“The Great Salt Lake is a valuable resource for its economic, health, ecological, and cultural benefits,” Leonard said. “Once the lake dries to certain levels, it will trigger enormous costs for mitigation and other damages.”

Marcelle Shoop of the National Audubon Society said if left unchecked, the problem “could result in catastrophic ecosystem collapse, affecting not just the millions of migratory birds that rely on the largest salt lake in the Western Hemisphere, but also many businesses and jobs that rely on a healthy lake.”