Decline of the world's saline lakes

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Many of the world's saline lakes are shrinking at alarming rates, reducing waterbird habitat and economic benefits while threatening human health. Saline lakes are long-term basin-wide integrators of climatic conditions that shrink and grow with natural climatic variation. In contrast, water withdrawals for human use exert a sustained reduction in lake inflows and levels. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural variability and human impacts to lake inflows is needed to preserve these lakes. With a credible water balance, causes of lake decline from water diversions or climate variability can be identified and the inflow needed to maintain lake health can be defined. Without a water balance, natural variability can be an excuse for inaction. Here we describe the decline of several of the world's large saline lakes and use a water balance for Great Salt Lake (USA) to demonstrate that consumptive water use rather than long-term climate change has greatly reduced its size. The inflow needed to maintain bird habitat, support lake-related industries and prevent dust storms that threaten human health and agriculture can be identified and provides the information to evaluate the difficult tradeoffs between direct benefits of consumptive water use and ecosystem services provided by saline lakes.

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Discussions with D.G. Tarboton and J.C. Schmidt facilitated our analysis and helped improve the manuscript. Contributions by S.E.N. were supported by the National Science Foundation cooperative agreement EPSCoR IIA-1208732. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Contributions by R.J.D. were partially supported by a US Bureau of Reclamation, WaterSmart Grant no. R13AC80039.

Author information


  1. Department of Watershed Sciences & Ecology Center, Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322, USA

    • Wayne A. Wurtsbaugh
    • , Sarah E. Null
    •  & Peter Wilcock
  2. Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake City, Utah 84116, USA

    • Craig Miller
  3. Rocky Mountain Research Station, US Forest Service, Ogden, Utah 84401, USA

    • R. Justin DeRose
  4. Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah 84123, USA

    • Maura Hahnenberger
  5. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Salt Lake City and Wildland Resources Department, Utah State University, Utah 84322 USA

    • Frank Howe
  6. Department of Geoscience, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA

    • Johnnie Moore


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All authors contributed equally to writing the paper. S.E.N. produced Fig. 1. W.A.W produced Figs 2, 4 and 5. C.M., R.J.D. and W.A.W. produced Fig. 3.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wayne A. Wurtsbaugh.

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