The ongoing decline of the great lakes of the world

I recently posted about the steady decline over time in the waters of the Great Salt Lake, in Utah.  Since 1847, the Great Salt Lake has shrunk to about half its original volume, which some scientists have attributed to climate change.  As it turns out, the decline may be more attributable to human consumption as every year, humans divert some 870 billion gallons of water from freshwater streams that feed the lake.

In the decline of the Great Salt Lake, we see some parallels to another infamous event in world water history: the desiccation of the Aral Sea in central Asia.  The Aral Sea used to be one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.  Beginning shortly after World War II, however, an intensive Soviet effort to increase cotton production led to the diversion of the waters of the two main feeder rivers – the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – for irrigation in the current country of Uzbekistan.  The flow from the rivers that actually reached the Aral Sea slowed to a trickle, the lake shrank in size and became saltier than the ocean, and a thriving fishing industry was destroyed.  Not only that, the desiccation of the Sea dramatically worsened air quality in the western part of Uzbekistan, causing respiratory ailments and likely contributing significantly to increased infant mortality.

Today, the Aral Sea is a shadow of its former self.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, steps have been taken to partially restore the Sea.  By damming off part of the Sea and increasing water flows from the Syr Darya, fishing is coming back in the northern part of the Aral Sea.

There would seem to be no reason to expect something similar to happen to the Great Salt Lake.  Without a dramatic reduction in water consumption, even partial restoration seems unlikely.  In a few decades, the Great Salt Lake may be nothing but a memory.


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Mark Kanazawa

I am Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College, Northfield, MN