Great Salt Lake’s demise spurs water emergency for Utah

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Utah’s iconic Great Salt Lake, long neglected by regulators, is collapsing due to a historic drought and climate change.

And, in a cruel twist, the demise of the lake — which shriveled to a record low level in July — may threaten Utah’s posh ski towns and even the state’s water supply.

At issue: the “lake effect.”

The sprawling Great Salt Lake doesn’t freeze in the winter due to its high salt content, so when some storms blow in, they collect the lake’s moisture, strengthen, then deliver extra snow to the Wasatch Mountains.

That snow is the lifeblood of ski towns like Alta and Snowbird, but it also contributes to water supply. Utah gets 95 percent of its water from snowpack.

Scientists say it’s unclear just how much the lake effect boosts the snowpack, but current research suggests it’s 5 to 8 percent.

But every snowflake matters in a drought. Utah has suffered a year of low precipitation, low snowpack and low soil moisture, so the snowmelt that has occurred has been absorbed by the ground and hasn’t flowed into reservoirs, which are currently 47 percent full.

The drought and water situation “is worse than we’ve seen,” said Laura Haskell of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

At the same time, Utah’s population continues to grow. It has 3 million residents and counting — and two-thirds of them live near the Great Salt Lake.

Scientists who call the lake a “fuel gauge” for Utah’s water say the empty light is flashing.

“The trend is there: The lake is just continually drying,” said Simon Wang of Utah State University. “That seems to be inevitable.”

The lake is demonstrating the cascading effects of climate change, all of which spell trouble for Utah. More frequent droughts mean less precipitation, and warmer temperatures mean more rain, less snowpack and increased water demand from farms.

At the same time, the shrinking Great Salt Lake is exposing a lake bed that emits dust, creating toxic air pollution in an area already…