Utah's Great Salt Lake Is Turning Into Dust

Originally published on July 21, 2021 6:21 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Jaimi Butler is a lifelong Utahan. She grew up near the Great Salt Lake.

JAIMI BUTLER: Great Salt Lake is a weird place. And it's smelly, and it is one of the buggiest places on the face of the earth.

KELLY: But as a field biologist with the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, she does not mind the bugs or the stench.

BUTLER: They're actually two of my favorite things about Great Salt Lake because I know it's alive by the smells and the birds that I see and the bugs that sometimes bite me or that fly up my nose.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now, she says, that life is slowly dying as the lake gets smaller and shallower. Water levels are projected to hit a 170-year low this year. That's partly due to the diversion of river water to nearby towns and farms instead of the lake. Now drought and evaporation fueled by climate change are making things even worse.

KELLY: And less water is bad news for everything that lives there, like microbialites. They are structures built by microbes which look sort of like coral reefs, and they're the bedrock of the lake's food chain.

BUTLER: Microbialites - they're like Great Salt Lake's trees. They're powerhouses. They produce a lot of oxygen. Those microbialites, for the first time ever, are going to be out of water.

CHANG: And without water, they'll die, leaving masses of brine flies and brine shrimp without food. Moving up the food chain, those flies and shrimp are a crucial food source for millions of resident and migratory birds, like pelicans and eared grebes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

BUTLER: Over 95% of the world's eared grebes comes here to rest and refuel. And if Great Salt Lake is desiccated, and if those brine shrimp aren't available, those birds have nowhere to go.

KELLY: A drying lake could also affect human health. As the water retreats, it's leaving a dusty, dry lakebed behind.

CHANG: Dr. Brian Moench of the group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment says the lake dust can be contaminated with disease-causing microbes and toxins, like mercury and arsenic. And it could worsen the region's already polluted air.

BRIAN MOENCH: In Utah, we're approaching this kind of trifecta. We're having increased levels of ozone. We're having increased levels of particulate pollution, especially during the summer and wildfire season. And now we're going to be experiencing, in the future, more and more dust storms.

CHANG: Moench says that could pose a health risk to the millions of people living near the lake.

MOENCH: Just about every kind of disease that you know is associated with smoking cigarettes is associated with air pollution exposure.

KELLY: So how to save the Great Salt Lake and everything living in and around it? Both scientists point to the need to stop diverting so much water away from the lake. They acknowledge that'll be a tough political fight in a rapidly drying west.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUSS'S "CHISHOLM TRAIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.