Scientists fear a Great Toxic Dustbowl could soon emerge from the Great Salt Lake

On the shores of Great Salt Lake, Utah

Like the rest of the West, Utah has water problems. But super-drought and overconsumption aren’t just threats to wildlife, agriculture and industry here. A disappearing Great Salt Lake could poison the lungs of more than 2.5 million people.

When the lake level reaches historic lows In recent weeks, 800 square miles of lake bed has been exposed – soil containing centuries of natural and man-made toxins like mercury, arsenic and selenium. As mud turns to dust and swirls to join some of the nation’s worst winter air pollution, scientists warn that the massive body of water could evaporate into a finger lake system. Not feeling within five yearsis on its way to becoming the Great Toxic Dustbowl.

“This is an ecological disaster that will turn into a human health disaster,” warned Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at the University of Westminster in Salt Lake City, Utah. “We know about dust storms, we know about particulate pollution, we know about heavy metals and how they are harmful to people,” she told CNN. “We see an impending crisis.”

Satellite image showing the water levels of the Great Salt Lake in 1987, left, and 2022.

The so-called “last lake,” the Great Salt Lake is powered by rain, snow, and flowing water, but has no rivers that lead to the ocean, and salts and minerals accumulate over time. Only flies and brine shrimp can survive in salt water, creating a unique ecosystem that supports 10 million migratory birds. With only sailboats and paddleboards navigating the lake, the lake is so peaceful, 80,000 white pelicans annually nest on fish-free islands.

But when the water evaporates without being replenished, the yacht basin is filled with mud, and predators can walk to the pelican’s nest and the bottom of the collapsing food chain.

“Your lake is shrinking, habitats are depleting, and the remaining water is too salty for (algae and bacteria) to survive,” says Baxter.

She came to Utah to study biology 15 years ago and soon realized that the fate of brine shrimp was directly linked to the future of Salt Lake City. When she’s not teaching biology, she visits schools, nursing homes and farm conferences to spread the word that every drop counts – now more than ever.

A mountain rises above the Great Salt Lake bed.

Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at the University of Westminster in Salt Lake City, Utah, stands on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.

“Scientists are not dramatic people,” Baxter laughs, but says that nearly three dozen scientists and conservationists have not hesitated to publish scary report aimed directly at Utah lawmakers who say the lake is on track to disappear in five years.

Others have joined the call for urgent measures. A new partnership between university researchers and state officials overseeing natural resources, agriculture, and food has formed the “Great Salt Lake Strike Team,” and issue a report This week calls for lawmakers to rewrite water laws.

“We have to get more water for the lake,” said Steed, executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water and Air at Wyoming State University and co-chair of the strike group. “For a long time, I don’t think people have said enough about the lake. Now, I think we have a lot of interested people, the governor and the legislature.”

As a sign of the unifying power of water, he went to the campus of rival Utah University, where the rooftop lab of John Lin, professor of Atmospheric Sciences, measured the relevance. Tightness of air and water.

“Air quality is bipartisan,” says Lin. “We all want fresh air and something has to be done to address that.”

More than 2 million people living in Salt Lake City and along the Wasatch Front from Ogden to Provo have suffered some of the worst winter air pollution in the country, with tiny dust particles forming dense clouds. brown. Lin and Steed add that drying up the Great Salt Lake could lead to more pollution.

As a cautionary tale, they point to California’s Lake Owens, which was famously drained by developers in the 1920s to build Los Angeles and inspired the water-filled 1974 film noir.”Chinatown.” By 1926, the lake eventually dried up and created billowing clouds of fine, toxic dust known as the “Keeler fog” after it forced residents of the town of Keeler to relocate.

A century later, every time Angeleno pays the water bill, a portion will be used to correct the mistake. a dust reduction program run by the city’s Department of Water and Electricity after the city took responsibility. After decades of moving water and gravel to control dust, the bill to drain Lake Owens is $2.5 billion and growing.

The town of Keeler, California, located along Lake Owens has now dried up by March 2022.

“It was human choice that led to that catastrophic event,” says Steed of California’s painful lesson. “We are currently looking at the Great Salt Lake in a position where we can avoid that disaster, where we don’t have to spend those billions of dollars remediation in the future if we put choose today.”

“Obviously there was a fight,” he said, acknowledging the old cliché “whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting.” “But what gives me hope is that we are seeing more collaboration than I have ever seen in my life, especially around things like the Great Salt Lake. There was a time when it was said that ‘No matter what country does, it is only lost’. Now we see that the things that make it up are really important to all of us here,” said Steed.

Moonshot proposed to save the lake includes a plan to bring water from the Pacific Ocean – a costly endeavor both in terms of money and pollution that warms the planet.

“The carbon equation is huge,” says Baxter, describing the amount of energy it takes to pump billions of gallons up 750 miles. “The cost is huge. And you’re going to bring salt water here, which isn’t really what we need. We don’t need to add salt. We need less salt.”

Cows graze in a field near Rowley, Utah.

“I think the cheapest solution is for the state to buy some farmers out of their water rights and release some of this water into the natural system,” she said. “I know the farmers I spoke to who wanted to be part of the solution. They also live here.”

And in the meantime, Baxter can only hope for some snow after recent storms have raised the lake level by about a foot.

“But last year we went up a foot and down two and a half feet,” she shrugged. “The aquifers are dry so we have to fill all of them first. So the rainfall directly into the lake gave us a foothold and that was great. But spring runoff may not bring as much water as we expect.”


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