To walk on to the Great Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere which faces the astounding prospect of disappearing just five years from now, is to trudge across expanses of sand and mud, streaked with ice and desiccated aquatic life, where just a short time ago you would be wading in waist-deep water.
But the mounting sense of local dread over the lake’s rapid retreat doesn’t just come from its throttled water supply and record low levels, as bad as this is. The terror comes from toxins laced in the vast exposed lake bed, such as arsenic, mercury and lead, being picked up by the wind to form poisonous clouds of dust that would swamp the lungs of people in nearby Salt Lake City, where air pollution is often already worse than that of Los Angeles, potentially provoking a myriad of respiratory and cancer-related problems.
This looming scenario, according to Ben Abbott, an ecologist at Brigham Young University, risks “one of the worst environmental disasters in modern US history”, surpassing the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979 and acting like a sort of “perpetual Deepwater Horizon blowout”.
Salt Lakers are set to be assailed by a “thick fog of this stuff that’s blowing through, it would be gritty. It would dim the light, it would literally go from day to night and it could absolutely be regular all summer,” said Abbott, who headed a sobering recent study with several dozen other scientists on the “unprecedented danger” posed by lake’s disintegration.
Ben Abbott on a mound of bleached and exposed microbialites at the Great Salt Lake in Utah.Photograph: Kim Raff/The Guardian
“We could expect to see thousands of excess deaths annually from the increase in air pollution and the collapse of the largest wetland oasis in the intermountain west,” he added.
There is evidence that plumes of toxic dust are already stirring as the exposed salt crust on the lake, which has lost three-quarters of its water and has shriveled by nearly two-thirds in size since the Mormon wagon train first arrived here in the mid-19th century, breaks apart from erosion. Abbott now regularly fields fretful phone calls from people asking if Salt Lake City is safe to live in still, or if their offspring should steer clear of the University of Utah.
“People have seen and realized it’s not hypothetical and that there is a real threat to our entire way of life,” Abbott said. “We are seeing this freight train coming as the lake shrinks. We’re just seeing the front end of it now.” About 2.4 million people, or about 80% of Utah’s population, lives “within a stone’s throw of the lake”, Abbott said. “I mean, they are directly down wind from this. As some people have said, it’s an environmental nuclear bomb.”
Alvin Sihapanya, a research student at Westminster College, looks in the water of the Great Salt Lake.Photograph: Kim Raff/The Guardian
The Great Salt Lake’s predicament is often compared to that of the dried-up Owens Lake in California, one of the worst sources of dust pollution in the US since the water feeding it was rerouted to Los Angeles more than a century ago. But the sheer heft of the Great Salt Lake, sometimes called ‘America’s Dead Sea’ but in fact four times larger than its counterpart that straddles Israel and Jordan, presages a loss on the scale of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake but strangled to death by Soviet irrigation projects.
The demise of the Aral Sea was dumfounding to many Soviets, who thought it virtually impossible to doom a lake so large just by watering some nearby cotton. “But these systems are actually very, very delicate,” said Abbott, and they can quickly spiral away. The Great Salt Lake, its equilibrium upended by the voracious diversion of water to nourish crops, flush toilets and water lawns and zapped by global heating, could vanish in just five years, a timeline Abbott admits seems “absurd”.
“History won’t have to judge us, not even our kids will have to judge us – we will judge ourselves in short order,” said Erin Mendenhall, the mayor of Salt Lake City, who is now regularly bombarded with questions about the toxic dust cloud from mayors of other cities. “The prognosis isn’t good unless there’s massive action. But we have to start within one year, we have have to take the action now.”
Haunted by these prognostications, Utah’s Republican leadership has responded with hundreds of millions of dollars in ameliorative measures and pugnacious rhetoric. “On my watch we are not allowing the lake to go dry,” Spencer Cox, Utah’s governor, has vowed. “We will do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Cox, who previously requested Utahns pray to help alleviate the worst drought to grip the US west in the past 1,200 years, has suspended any new claims for water in the Great Salt Lake basin.
A swathe of bills before the Republican-dominated legislature would tear up thirsty turf, encourage farmers to be more efficient with water and create a new role of Great Salt Lake commissioner. “We have to re-evaluate our relationship with water and how we live,” Brad Wilson, the Utah house speaker, said. “We are second driest state in country and we have opportunity to reimagine use of water.”
But scientists who study the lake worry that the proposed remedies don’t yet match the extent of the problem. A network of dams and canals have siphoned off so much water from the three main rivers – Bear, Jordan and Weber – that flow from the mountains to the lake that in the past three years it has got just a third of its natural streamflow. The level of the lake is 19ft below its natural average level and the decline has accelerated since 2020, with the lake in just three years starved of enough water that could cover the whole of Connecticut in a 1ft-deep swimming pool.
Continue this way and the lake faces complete collapse. “It’s definitely the feeling of standing at the precipice and rocks are crumbling under your feet,” Bonnie Baxter, a biologist at Westminster College who has spent years studying the lake. “And you know you’re about to go over. It’s like that close. That’s what it feels like.”
Bonnie Baxter, professor of biology and part of the Great Salt Lake Institute, in the research labs at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.Photograph: Kim Raff/The Guardian
Baxter and her fellow researchers are anxious about the fate of the lake’s ecological foundations, structures called microbialites which look a bit like dull coral reefs but are made of millions of microbes. The microbial community grows in a mat, feeding brine flies which, in turn, along with the lake’s brine shrimp, feed the 10 million birds that use the lake a crucial stop-off.
The receding waters, however, have left many of the microbialites stranded in the open air, slowly dying. The lake’s shrinking pool of water is becoming far more saline, a bit like how the last of the bathwater concentrates the grime, making conditions intolerable for the flies, shrimp and microbes. The lake is typically three or four times saltier than the ocean but this year it is about six times as salty, which Baxter said is “just crazy. We are a little bit worried about that.”
Losing the lake threatens a strange and terrible cocktail of ramifications. Birdlife and recreation on the lake will vanish as the lake’s surface area – now less than 1,000 square miles, down from three times that in the 1980s – turns into a crusty, potentially toxic miasma.
The lucrative extraction of lithium, magnesium and other minerals from the lake would be in peril, as would ski conditions on the mountains that loom next to the lake – moisture from the lake is sucked up by storms that then deposits it as snow for skiers and snowboarders to enjoy. Billions of dollars in economic damage would result.
Westminster College students Cora Rasmuson, left, and Bridget Dopp set up an experiment testing the effects of water salinity and brine fly larva at Westminster College.Photograph: Kim Raff/The Guardian
A projection of a brine fly under the microscope in the research labs at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.Photograph: Kim Raff/The Guardian
As the lake’s plight has become apparent, there’s been an outpouring of unconventional ideas on how to save it. Lawmakers have pledged millions of dollars towards cloud seeding – putting chemicals into clouds to prompt more snowfall – while some have advocated cutting down trees, in the belief they are sucking up too much water, or even building an enormous pipeline to the Pacific ocean to funnel water into the lake.
Baxter said she gets a lot of “old retired men” emailing her or dropping by her office to impart such wisdom. “The pipeline – well I mean it would be too much money, too much energy, the carbon equation is huge,” she said. “Also, we don’t want to add salt to the lake, we need the fresh water that’s already in the watershed.”
Utah is America’s youngest and fastest growing state – the population leapt 18% in the past decade – but the Great Salt Lake is being parched by an antediluvian network of water rights for agriculture rather than thirsty newcomers. About three-quarters of the diverted water goes to growing crops, with the growing of alfalfa, a water-intensive crop that is turned into animal feed, the largest consumer. Just 9% of the diverted water goes to cities.
Already an overdrawn account subjected to unrestrained spending, the Great Salt Lake is being pushed further into the red by the climate crisis. Rising temperatures are winnowing away the snowpack that feeds its rivers and evaporating the water that sits in the closed, saucer-like lake. “The diversions got us in the situation we’re in now where we don’t have the resiliency to deal with the impacts of climate change,” said Baxter. “So now we’re dealing with both things.”
The shrinking shoreline of the Great Salt Lake.Photograph: Kim Raff/The Guardian
The story of the Great Salt Lake, much like that of the ailing Colorado River, is very much a tale of the US west, of scant resources being harnessed to seed major cities and bloom a cornucopia of food in an arid land.
But this fantasy of ongoing, untamed growth is colliding with a new climatic reality – the US west’s sprawling Great Basin network of terminal lakes, which includes the Great Salt Lake at its eastern extremity, is in the process of drying up as 3.3tn liters of water are diverted from its streams each year. The shortfall is sparking jarring disagreements between states over cuts to the Colorado’s use and, in Utah, calling into question the long-held water primacy of farming.
Abbott and Baxter’s report calls for “emergency measures” to cut water use in the region by up to a half. Such a massive reduction would probably require stringent curbs in alfalfa growing, among other major reforms, in order to push millions of gallons of water back through the system.
The Salt Lake City mayor, Erin Mendenhall.Photograph: Kim Raff/The Guardian
The state’s Republican leadership is wary of forcing farmers’ hands, however, leaning on the settlers’ principle of “right in time, first in right” for water allocations. “Alfalfa has got a really bad wrap lately but we have got to create economic incentives for water conservation, let the free market guide those decisions,” said Joel Ferry, the executive director of the Utah department of natural resources, and who has grown alfalfa himself at his farm near Bear river.
“Farmers fundamentally have the right to grow alfalfa, they produce some of the finest crop in the world,” Ferry added. “It’s not the role of government to say ‘you can’t do that.’” Wilson, the house speaker, has said “we don’t need sticks” to prod Utahns to do the right thing.
Ferry said that the challenges faced by the Great Salt Lake are “large but not insurmountable”, pointing to reforms taken by farmers to better conserve water through sprinklers and other technology. “I’m optimistic the people of Utah will rise to the challenge,” he said. “I’m a fifth-generation farmer and rancher and I want this to be sustainable for five more generations.”
The crisis has, at least, prompted a reappraisal of what the Great Salt Lake means to its nearest inhabitants. John Fremont, a military officer who was the first white explorer of the lake in 1843, marveled that it “possessed a strange and extraordinary interest” and erroneously speculated that a “terrible whirlpool” took its waters to the ocean. Subsequent Mormon settlers found the area harsh but captivating, an oasis amid the desert, and rumours swirled for decades that monsters lurked within the lake. For a while, a few vacation resorts dotted the lake’s shores.
Since then, the Great Salt Lake has been rather looked down upon for its briny, fly-ridden appearance and rotten egg smell. It was a place to dump trash, rather than take a picnic. “We haven’t had a love affair with the Great Salt Lake until recently, there was a lot of disparagement that it was this inaccessible, useless lake,” said Mendenhall. “People thought it was ugly.”
A visitor to Lady Finger Point that overlooks the lake bed of the Great Salt Lake.Photograph: Kim Raff/The Guardian
But as the lake hit a record low level in 2021, and then again last year, a certain warmth started to stir among Salt Lakers of the body of water their city is named after. “We dismissed the Great Salt Lake, we ignored it,” as Joel Briscoe, a Democratic state lawmaker, lamented in January. “We failed to appreciate it for too long.” There’s a growing desire to save this sprawling, ebbing ecosystem, even if the main motivation is to avoid a choking miasma of dust pollution.
“There is this whole personal connection to the lake now,” said Baxter, who suggests the ‘first in time’ water priority should apply to the malnourished, 11,000-year-old lake itself. “People say to me we are losing this lake and that it is part of their fabric, someone even said they have written poems to the lake. It’s changing. We’ll see if it’s enough.”
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