The last chance to save the Great Salt Lake

As the lake shrinks, health concerns grow

Indiana Plant, Editor-in-Chief

While the words “toxic arsenic dust” may sound like something from a science fiction novel, the possibility of lethal environmental ramifications are all-too real for Utahns. As citizens watch the Great Salt Lake disappear, lawmakers and environmentalists are forced to grapple with dystopian-like consequences.

It’s no surprise that the Great Salt Lake is shrinking. Scientists, politicians and environmentalists have heralded the impending demise of Utah’s most famous body of water for years; unfortunately, research points to several broader health implications. Scientists currently project that the Great Salt Lake could be gone within five years. According to CNN, there are already 800 square miles of lakebed exposed to the atmosphere. As more lakebed peeks through, the chances of a so-called “toxic dustbowl” climb exponentially. While the Great Salt Lake may not seem important, its rough exterior shields citizens from several hazardous materials. The worst chemicals — poisonous metals like antimony and arsenic — could lead to greater air pollution, a problem already enmeshed in Utah culture and legislation. This could affect the inhabitability of developments near Salt Lake, especially for those already at risk of heart disease and respiratory problems. Physical health risks aren’t the only consequence. Utah’s economy faces a real threat. Prime real estate for corporations and housing could drop in price after being enveloped in poisonous dust.

Not only is the Great Salt Lake vital to air quality and economic stability, but to ancient ecological systems as well. With less water to go around, the already highly-salinated biosphere of the Great Salt Lake will soon become too salty to support even rudimentary life. “The first law of ecology is ‘everything is connected.’ The collapse or recovery of the Great Salt Lake will have regional and even hemispheric impacts. Losing it would be a global tragedy,” says ecosystem ecologist Benjamin Abbott, a student at Brigham Young University. As brine shrimp are suffocated in record-breaking levels of salt, essential seabirds lose their primary food source. The Smithsonian reports that millions of migratory birds are already suffering. Candice Hasenyager, the director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, has called the situation an “all-hands-on-deck emergency.”


“Losing it would be a global tragedy.” -Benjamin Abbott


Lawmakers have promised to assuage the situation, but some are skeptical about legislative efficacy. Some proposed remedies to the Great Salt Lake crisis have raised eyebrows. However, science fiction scenarios may require science fiction solutions. Ideas for raising the water levels of the Great Salt Lake include pumping water directly from the Pacific Ocean. Others demand that humans give up water, a hot-button topic for a desert state already struggling to hydrate its growing population. “We don’t have the luxury to have one solution,” says Hasenyager. Legislation and civil cooperation will ultimately be necessary to curb the effects of the dying lake. A report drafted by 11 universities recommends that Spencer Cox, current governor of Utah, authorize emergency release from Utah reservoirs to support the Great Salt Lake. While this plan is backed by science, it would require a 50% cut in the amount of water used by Utah each year. The Washington Post calls for a “shift in thinking” in all Utahns. Abbott, the student from BYU, urges citizens to stop thinking of the lake as a “commodity.”

Currently, a bill called “Great Salt Lake Recovery Act,” sponsored by Senator Mitt Romney, has been referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works at the national level. Other legislation is underway from Governor Cox and politicians across the state. Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a prominent Christian denomination within Utah, has stepped in to help the Great Salt Lake; they have committed to permanently donating 20,000 acre-feet of water to the lake each year. Officials say that this is the largest permanent water donation in the lake’s history. With some luck, and the continued cooperation of these organizations, the Great Salt Lake can be preserved for generations. Hanna Saltzman, a pediatric physician and guest reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, pleads with citizens to inspire change for the improved health of Utah and its residents. “We, too, can make huge changes — even when it’s hard,” she says. “When it comes to saving the Great Salt Lake, it’s our only option.”

Art by Chloe Garder