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Summit brings together state leaders, scientists to talk GSL future

By Deborah Wilber - | Jan 6, 2022
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The dry lake bed of the Great Salt Lake cracks along the edges of Antelope Island on Thursday, July 26, 2018. Much of Utah's water policy dates back to the early 20th century. As the population grows along the Wasatch Front and the climate changes, less and less water makes it to the Great Salt Lake.
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Pink water washes over a salt crust on May 4, 2021, along the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake. The lake has been shrinking for years, and a drought gripping the American West could make this year the worst yet.
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The shallow water is seen from above at a boat dock on May 13, 2021, at Antelope Island. The silvery blue waters of the Great Salt Lake sprawl across the Utah desert, having covered an area nearly the size of Delaware for much of history. For years, though, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River has been shrinking. And a drought gripping the American West could make this year the worst yet.
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A lone dead tree stump stands as dust blows along the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake on April 19, 2021, near Antelope Island. The lake has been shrinking for years, and a drought gripping the American West could make this year the worst yet.
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In this on May 4, 2021, photo, the Great Salt Lake recedes from Antelope Island, near Salt Lake City.

LAYTON — Numerous entities gathered Wednesday at the Davis County Conference Center for the inaugural Great Salt Lake Summit to bring awareness and action to record-low water levels before dry lake beds become irreversible crises.

Utah Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, general counsel for the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, said state leaders know the threats facing the saltwater lake and the magnitude of the consequences.

Hawkes used the Aral Sea, located in Asia between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to illuminate the consequences of drying lake beds.

The Aral Sea was one of the largest lakes in the world until the 1960s when the Soviet Union diverted two major rivers for irrigation purposes. As of 2014, NASA Earth Observatory showed the Aral Sea had lost 90% of it’s volume.

“They have given up trying to bring the lake back,” Hawkes said. “It looks like something out of ‘Mad Max.'”

According to a study commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, some 60,000 people lost their livelihood due to a dried-up fishery, devastating the local economy.

Dust bowls carried salts, heavy metals, pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, compounds through the region, with some of the highest rates of respiratory illness and deaths in the world.

While more than 25 significant saline lakes around the world are shrinking, a report prepared by U.S. engineering firm AECOM on behalf of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council focuses on eight terminal saline lakes sharing important characteristics with the Great Sale Lake.

Over 1,000 square miles of dry lake bed at Owens Lake in California was found to be the source of the worst dust problem in the country by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Air quality, water supply through lake-effect snow, accelerated thawing of snow as a result of dust, the economy and wildlife suffer with the shrinking of the Great Sale Lake, environmentalists warn.

Hawkes and others working toward saving Utah’s largest body of water, say challenges already faced by Utahns, such as bad air quality, would be made much worse.

“There are heavy metals to be concerned about,” Kevin Perry, chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, said of the regional screening levels, or RSLs, used by the EPA.

According to Perry, RSLs showed arsenic air toxics, also called hazardous air pollutants, exceeding EPA standards. “Dust impacts everybody in Northern Utah,” he said.

A single dust event in 2017, originating in part from a dry lake bed of the Great Salt Lake, accelerated snow melt by one week, said McKenzie Skiles, assistant professor in the geography department at the U of U.

Contrary to popular belief, Skiles said, warm temperatures are not the primary cause of snow melt, sunlight is. Dark snow absorbs more light. According to Skiles, it is preferable for snow pack to melt slowly — a seemingly difficult task with a shrinking lake.

If action to save the Great Salt Lake is not taken, Utahns could stand to lose a total economic output of $1.32 billion, a labor income of $375.1 million and 7,706 jobs, according to a bioeconomics report provided to the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council on Jan. 26, 2012.

Among the commercial products generated by the Great Salt Lake are brine shrimp, harvested locally and shipped to hatcheries all over the world to feed other shrimp and fish.

Magnesium, titanium, sulfate of potash and lithium are four strategic minerals found in the Great Salt Lake. “When you touch a pop can or a beer can, you touch the Great Salt Lake and it’s touching you,” Hawkes said.

He hopes policymakers at every level of government understand what meaningful steps need to be taken to address the Great Salt Lake, as its current state threatens economic disparity and quality of life for every Utahn.

“If there’s anything to take away from today’s presentation, you should realize if the Great Salt Lake went away, we would not be OK,” Hawkes said.

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