Iran’s Dying Lake Urmia: Lessons for the Great Salt Lake
Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran is remarkably similar to the Great Salt Lake with respect to size, depth, elevation and causeway construction. However, due to water diversions for agriculture and industry, Lake Urmia is being dried up and an ecological catastrophe similar to that of the Aral Sea is looming. With reduced freshwater inflows, and continued evaporation, its waters have become saturated with salt, and brine shrimp and the flamingos dependent on them have disappeared. Continued desiccation will likely result in salt dust storms that will harm agriculture and the health of 6.5 million residents in the basin. Although there is a huge outcry from citizens to preserve the lake, it isn’t clear if there is the political will to recover more than 50% of the water that has been diverted for agricultural and industrial use.
The Lake Urmia experience yields important insights on the management of the Great Salt Lake. We can ask what factors have kept us from drying up our lake. We are moving in that direction. Water diversions for agriculture and urban use have lowered the Great Salt Lake 7-11 feet below what its natural level would be, and there is a significant downward trend in lake level. However, the plant growing season in the Great Salt Lake’s basin is only about 55% of that around Lake Urmia, and our population density is only 40% of theirs. Both of these factors reduce water demand in the Great Salt Lake basin. Nevertheless, population growth in both Iran and Utah are similar, and if trends continue, populations in both areas will double in 35-40 years, and this will put even more serious demands on water resources. Planned development of the Great Salt Lake’s major tributary, the Bear River, will divert water from the lake, and further lower its level. Consequently, although the trajectory towards disaster is much faster for Lake Urmia, water managers need to consider what the long-term fate of the Great Salt Lake will be in the face of increasing demand for one of our most precious resources—water.
Dr. Wayne Wurtsbaugh is a professor in the Watershed Sciences Department in the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of limnology, water pollution and fisheries. Dr. Wurtsbaugh has a B.S. in Fisheries from the University of California, Davis (UCD), an M.S. in Fisheries and Water Quality from Oregon State University, and a Ph.D. in Ecology from UCD. He has 45 years of experience in research and teaching in the field of aquatic ecology.
He has worked internationally on four continents utilizing environmental monitoring, large-scale field experiments, and laboratory assays to address both basic and applied research questions. He has been working on the Great Salt Lake for 30 years conducting studies on eutrophication, contaminants and the lake’s food web. He has published 90 peer-reviewed publications, and numerous reports to state and federal agencies.