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Lake questions: What are the effects of a dried Great Salt Lake on locals and wildlife?

By McCaulee Blackburn - The Globe | Oct 3, 2022

Kasie Bussard, The Globe

Three volunteers from Salt Lake Community College walk along the Great Salt Lake’s bed during a cleanup on Saturday, Sept 17, 2022.

Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

The Great Salt Lake Collaborative surveyed for audience questions about the lake, and The Globe is publishing experts’ answers. This edition explores the impacts of a desiccated Great Salt Lake on locals and wildlife.

How would the lake’s absence affect Utah?

The disappearance of the Great Salt Lake will impact every aspect of life in Utah, said Jaimi Butler, former coordinator of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute.

“The Great Salt Lake isn’t going to just disappear,” she said. “It will turn into an environmental catastrophe that won’t go away.”

Alkaline dust from the exposed lakebed would worsen air quality for all who live in the region. As a result, increased rates of asthma and cancer could be seen in the Wasatch Front population.

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

The increase in alkaline dust will also decrease the snowpack that locals rely on each year, furthering the water crisis.

Laura Vernon, the Great Salt Lake Coordinator for the state, expressed concern about the economic losses Utah will experience if the lake dries.

“The economic revenue generated by mineral extraction, the brine shrimp industry and recreational activities will be gone,” Vernon said. “Around 7,000 Utahns will lose their jobs.”

Without the Great Salt Lake, Utah loses its annual $1.3 billion revenue from these industries, and future costs to fix the dried lake would add to the economic stress.

How much air pollution is already happening?

Increased air pollution is a subject of ongoing study by the University of Utah and Utah State University.

Kevin Perry’s team at the U. has studied dust plumes from the Great Salt Lake for the past five years and discovered unsafe levels of arsenic in parts of the exposed lakebed. The presence of arsenic could cause health problems if we breathe dust blown from lake’s exposed bed on a regular basis.

As more of the lakebed becomes exposed, Vernon said more dust storms will occur. In fact, USU lake researchers found last year was the dustiest yet. They have found various toxic pollutants in the dust, such as copper, sulfur and phosphorus.

Vernon recently witnessed a dust storm that blew through Salt Lake City. USU continues to study what’s in the dust, where it comes from and where it will go.

The Wasatch Front sees poor air quality during the winter from inversions and in the summer from ozone. Spring and fall dust storms could leave the area with almost constant poor air quality.

What is the future of waterfowl and wildlife impact?

The Great Salt Lake provides a home for a wide range of creatures, like the migrating American white pelicans and brine shrimp. These creatures rely on the lake in different ways, and they will be impacted differently if the lake’s shoreline continues to decrease.

Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College and Great Salt Lake Collaborative member, said saline imbalances caused by decreases in water levels are the biggest threat these species face.

“Each species has its own restrictive salinity,” Baxter said, “[they] can’t live higher than a certain percentage of salt in the water … We have to be really careful about that.”

Great Salt Lake Collaborative partner KSL NewsRadio reported that as the lake shrinks, birds are “not only having a hard time finding plants or fishing out brine shrimp, but they’re also competing for space, fighting against predators and having to deal with invasive species.”

Higher levels of salt could change the diet of shorebirds and brine shrimp, Baxter said, because higher saline levels will cause less diversity and availability in the invertebrates and algae they eat.

If the lake continues shrinking it could also impact shorebirds in the freshwater wetlands surrounding the lake. “We’re worried about their habitat becoming more saline or losing water, drying up,” Baxter said.

Baxter encouraged people who wish to help the wildlife at Great Salt Lake to connect with and advocate for the lake.

“Go to the lake and tell your lake story to your representative,” Baxter said. “Tell them to keep water in the lake.”

Do you have a question about the lake? Visit the Great Salt Lake Collaborative website to participate in an audience survey.

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