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Biden signs bill to study salt lakes in drought-hit US

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Scientists will get USD25 million to study salt lake ecosystems in the drought-stricken United States (US) west as President Joe Biden signed legislation on Tuesday allocating the funds in the face of unprecedented existential threats caused by the lack of water.

The funding allows the US Geological Survey to study the hydrology of the ecosystems in and around Utah’s Great Salt Lake, California’s Mono Lake, Oregon’s Lake Albert and other saline lakes.

Amid a decades long drought, less snowmelt has flowed through the rivers that feed into the lakes, causing shorelines to recede and lake levels to plummet.

Dwindling lake levels jeopardise the people, animals and businesses that rely on maintaining the ecosystem.

The lakes often serve as critical habitats for migratory birds. Dust exposed by receding water levels can be blown into the air and have dangerous health effects on surrounding communities. Further depletion threatens the canals and infrastructure that a multi-million dollar mining industry needs to extract salts from the lakes.

In Utah, the Great Salt Lake shrunk to its lowest point in recorded history, posing threats to economic output, snowpack, public health and wildlife. Ski resorts worry about a future without lake effect snow.

Reef-like structures exposed by receding waters at the Great Salt Lake. PHOTO: AP

State lawmakers and local water district officials have committed to funding and incentivising conservation efforts, yet development, population growth and enduring agricultural demand continue to strain the water supply needed to maintain the lake.

In eastern California, state officials have dramatically curtailed the amount Los Angeles can divert from the creeks and tributaries that feed Mono Lake in the eastern Sierras.

Diminishing lake levels have for years made the water saltier, jeopardising bird, fish and brine shrimp habitats.

The legislation signed on Tuesday establishes what it calls a “Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Assessment and Monitoring Programme” to examine variables such as water use and demand and “climatic stressors.”

The Saline Lakes Program Director for the Audubon Society Marcelle Shoop, said in a statement that the funding would complement existing conservation efforts. “The Great Salt Lake and the network of saline lake ecosystems in the arid West face very serious challenges with increasingly low water levels, placing local communities and millions of migratory birds at risk,” she said.

Although the legislation’s sponsors, senators and congressmen from throughout the West, lauded the effort and said they hoped the studies would inform solutions, the programme does not mandate any conservation measures or institute new water management guidelines.

“These ecosystems must be protected, but we can’t do that without sufficient data,” Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.

The bill adds to USD40 million that Utah lawmakers allocated to the Great Salt Lake for watershed enhancement programmes this year and supplements USD10 million in Army Corps of Engineers funding for the saline lakes passed as part of a defence spending bill.

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