Great Salt Lake is shrinking fast. Scientists demand action before it becomes a toxic dustbin
“I’ve never seen it this bad – not in my entire life,” said Andy Wallace as he flew over the water in a propeller plane, as he has done for years as a commercial pilot.
Put simply, the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere is shrinking rapidly. Left alone, the lake’s footprint would be 2,100 square miles – more than three times the area of Houston. An analysis published last year showed that the water siphoned from the rivers that feed the natural wonder had reduced its level by 3 meters and depleted the lake area by more than half.
“Twenty years ago this was about ten feet,” said Kevin Perry, chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, as he cycled across the parched lake floor in July.
Dying Organisms and Arsenic
Perry and other scientists worry that they are watching a disaster in slow motion. Ten million birds flock to the Great Salt Lake each year to feed on its now struggling marine life. More pelicans breed here than in most other parts of the country.
The problem is trickling down the food chain. The Utah Geological Survey openly expressed concern Thursday that shrinking lake levels threaten to kill microbialites – underwater reefs that help feed salt flies, brine shrimp, and thus the 338 species of birds that visit each year.
“We view these structures as living rock,” said Michael Vanden Berg, manager of the research’s energy and minerals program. “The population in the Great Salt Lake is one of the largest concentrations of modern microbialites in the world.”
If the lake continues to sink to historic levels, a previously unseen proportion of the lake’s microbialites will be exposed, according to a press release. It can only take weeks for the microbial mat to erode from the “living rocks” and it could take years for it to recover, even if lake levels return to normal.
Salt prawns, also known as sea monkeys, also struggle with the increasing salt content that comes with less water. They’re not just bird seed. They are exported as fish feed, and the commercial harvest contributes to an estimated $ 1.5 billion economy – which, along with recreation and mineral extraction, helps feed fishermen and other people around the Great Salt Lake.
The economic downturn is not the only threat to the people of the region. Utah’s soil is naturally rich in arsenic, a toxic compound that causes a daunting array of health problems. If it is washed downstream, it ends up in the lake, Perry said. When the wind blows, as it regularly does, it swirls up the dusty seabed.
“One of our concerns is the particles that come out of the lake and get into people’s lungs,” he said. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, when the lake was higher, most of these dust spots were covered, and when you cover them with water, they don’t produce dust. And as the lake has receded, it is more exposed and more of that lake bed. … The larger the area, the more dust storms occur. “
Owens Lake, a mostly dry lake east of California’s Sequoia National Forest, was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct nearly a century ago, Perry noted. Although some of the water flows back into the lake, its dry bed is the largest source of PM-10 pollution – large, inhalable dust particles – in the country. Great Salt Lake is much larger than Owens Lake, and while Owens Lake’s population is around 40,000, more than 2 million people live around Great Salt Lake, Perry points out.
“This lake could become one of the major sources of dust emissions in North America as well,” he said. “Right now, the lake floor is protected by a fragile crust, and if that crust is disturbed or eroded over time, this lake could emit much more (dust).”
“We are facing a disaster”
Huge parts of Lake Utah resemble Death Valley more than any waterway, the ground being barren and fissured from dry heat. Other areas look like extensive street puddles. Birds wade through the mud of the coast along empty marinas, their slips sinking to the bottom.
“The saltyest sailors in the world have been hoisted out of the Great Salt Lake marinas by crane in the past few days because the lake level has sunk,” wrote the Utah Rivers Council in the introduction to a report found in front of a dam, a reservoir Proposal in the east will only exacerbate the problems. While human behavior remains the main concern of scientists, the lack of rain in the west is not helping. The Great Salt Lake is now like water sitting on a plate while most lakes resemble a cup, said Jaimi Butler, co-editor of the 2020 analysis that shows lake area has shrunk by 51%.
The shallow water is more prone to evaporation during drought, and while the lake’s level rises and flows throughout the year, the lake tends to bottom out in autumn, around October. The lake will continue to sink and shrink over the next three months, and the water level could drop as much as 2 feet by Halloween, Butler suspects.
“Holding water in the Great Salt Lake is the biggest thing keeping me up at night,” said Butler, a wildlife biologist who grew up near the lake and serves as the coordinator of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. “We are facing a disaster.”
Mother nature and residents have to join forces
Butler wept as he pondered the consequences of not taking strong action to save the waterway.
“Great Salt Lake is going to be an environmental, economic and truly cultural disaster rolled into one,” she said. “I grew up here. A place will be yours. … We are all Great Salt Lake.
People created the problem and people need to be part of the solution, she said. Curbing water use and increasing water utility prices to reduce waste would be a start, she added.
Despite the warning bells, water destined for the Great Salt Lake continues to be diverted to farms, ranches and towns – the latter enjoying some of the cheapest water in the nation, Butler said.
Salt Lake City residents paid some of the lowest water prices in any major US city, according to an analysis by Circle of Blue, a nonprofit advocating responsible use of water resources. A family of four who used 100 gallons a day was paying $ 32 a month in 2018 – about half what New Yorkers paid, a third what Atlanta residents, and a quarter what San Franciscans did that year paid. Among the big cities, only the residents of Memphis paid less.
But it appears that residents around the Great Salt Lake have acted more conscientiously, said Marcie McCartney, water conservation and education manager for the Utah Division of Water Resources.
“Everyone around and in this pool is doing everything possible to use water as effectively as possible,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of (water) savings this year, which is great, but the Great Salt Lake is definitely suffering, and the only way to raise that lake level is to have a better water year for our snowpack.”
Officials tasked with monitoring snow runoff in streams and reservoirs must calculate how much is needed for water supplies – drinking, farming, etc – and the rest can be discharged downstream into the Great Salt Lake, McCartney explained. This year’s “bad snow cover” has melted too quickly, “and the ground is really thirsty.”
“Mother Nature will take her share first and we will get the rest,” she said.
In November Butler wrote an obituary for Great Salt Lake in Catalyst Magazine in the Utah capital.
“Great Salt Lake saw its last glittering sunset today and succumbed to a long battle with chronic distractions made worse by climate change,” it began. “Its dusty remains will be strewn across the Salt Lake Valley for millennia – we are constantly reminded that it passes our air quality monitors.”
The play set out the story of the reservoir, how it found itself in dire straits, and what concerned Utahans can do to change the narrative and amplify their voices to save the water they love.
“Measures were taken to prevent the death of Great Salt Lake, but it was too little, too late,” the obituary said. “She supported the Utah economy for many years, but we didn’t fund her health care adequately on time. If we had, we might not be mourning her death today.”
Speaking to CNN, Butler repeated many of these points, imploring, “We have changed our world and we need to change our behavior to preserve incredible ecosystems that include people like here on the Great Salt Lake.”