On a warm, cloudless morning early this October, a group of around 70 ninth-graders from North Davis Preparatory Academy gathered at the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program headquarters along Ogden Bay.
The students inspected brine shrimp under microscopes and brine fly larvae swimming in murky aquariums. They sniffed a brackish water sample and shuffled around surveying boats. They had lots of questions.
“How salty is the lake?” (It depends.) “How fast does the boat go?” (Up to 45 miles per hour.) “How old do you need to be to work here?” (At least old enough to drive. A biology or zoology degree also doesn’t hurt.)
The program’s biologists asked a few questions, too. “How many of you have been to the ocean?” (A third of the hands went up.) “How many of you have been to the Great Salt Lake?” (Far fewer.)
North Davis Prep is only 16 miles from the day’s field trip site at the Ogden Bay office and 9 miles from the the gateway to Antelope Island. Yet most of the kids’ associations with the Great Salt Lake, if they have any at all, are through school field trips like these.
“It’s amazing, we took a trip last year to the causeway,” science teacher Taylor Abbott, who organized the outing, said. “They only live 10 minutes from the causeway to Antelope Island, and they’ve never been there (before). So, yeah, it is strange.”
Biologists at the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program and park managers at Antelope Island are painfully aware of the disconnect.
From where they work, they watch an impending environmental and economic disaster. The water at Farmington Bay is disappearing. Birds keep losing habitat. The water is getting saltier, which could upset the entire ecosystem. More lake bed is exposed and winds keep kicking up thick dust storms.
They wonder why no one else seems to be paying attention.
The image on the left is a satellite image of Great Salt Lake in 1985; the photo on the right is from earlier this year. The lake is inches from an all time low. Keep scrolling to read the rest of the story.
A PLACE OF WASTE, A PLACE OF WONDER
An attachment to place is important. It encourages environmental stewardship and a desire to help a place endure. But local interest in the Great Salt Lake seems to be drying up with the water.
Carla Trentelman, a Weber State University professor, conducted the first and only sociological study of the lake just over five years ago. Her goal was to better understand how people living near Great Salt Lake feel about it and why.
As Trentelman surveyed more and more of the people living close to the lake, she found human feelings about it are mixed.
“There are people who feel very strongly, very positively, about the lake, but even they acknowledge there are things about the lake that are challenging,” Trentelman said. “And the folks who dislike it the most, even they came up with some positives about it.”
She heard about the serenity and the smell, the soul-stirring sunsets and the salted earth left behind by the receded floods. She heard memories of great blue herons flying through the neighborhood and of lying in bed, listening to a chorus of migratory bird calls. She also heard complaints about bug-plastered windshields and swarms of mosquitos. She heard people talk in awe of watching weather move across the vast lake’s plain, and she heard tales of frustration when a salt storm sandblasted the deck and corroded the stainless steel grill.
She heard conflicted feelings about diverting more water away from the lake to sustain a growing population, instead of allowing the vital resource to die in a lake where it can no longer be used — at least by people.
“In Box Elder County, the lake is pretty much (construed) as a waste of water,” Trentelman said.
She found younger generations often think of the lake as waste, too, if they think of it at all. But older folks who have lived near it for decades have a reverence.
The lands near the lake are called miserable, remote and unstable. But the people who have invested their lives in the area know the benefits. They move there to keep horses, to embrace nighttime darkness, for unobstructed views, for rural life less than three miles from the city. They stay there for family, for affordability and for memories fixed in the landscape.
But part of the disconnect among younger generations, Trentelman said, comes from lack of access to the water.
The lake sprawls from Brigham City to Salt Lake City, from Syracuse to Skull Valley. But a lot of the shoreline is privately held — mostly by the military and mineral companies — or it’s covered by marshes. The lake feels “out there.” The water’s only easily reached at Antelope Island and the Great Salt Lake Marina. And why would anyone drive so far?
SEEING BUT NOT PERCEIVING
What’s worse, even people living close to the lake don’t seem to grasp how profoundly humans have already altered the lake ecosystem. The railroad causeway has effectively sealed off the north arm above Promontory Point. Almost no fresh water reaches it anymore. It’s a changed ecosystem, devoid of life found elsewhere on the lake. People also don’t seem to understand that indirectly, they’re mostly the source of the infamous lake stink.
Human water consumption has contributed to the lake’s steady decline — it might be around 10 feet higher if not for diversions. The planet keeps warming and the climate is changing, which could mean less rainfall for the lake’s tributaries in the near future. Talk of dams on the largely untapped Bear River could mean even less water reaches the lake.
“One of my concerns about the lake getting so low is those negative consequences for those folks who live most close to the lake,” Trentelman said. “The lower the lake level gets, the higher the consequences they have to pay — like lake dust or air quality issues. And they get fewer and fewer of the benefits as the lake gets farther and farther away.”
It might be hard to think such a large lake could just dry up before our eyes without anyone on the Wasatch Front noticing. But that already happened at the Great Salt Lake’s twin, Lake Urmia in Iran.
Urmia was once the second-largest saline lake in the Middle East. It was decimated in just over a decade.
Part of the problem with the Great Salt Lake’s disconnect might lie in its geography — it sits in a big, flat basin, so the closer you get to the water, the harder it is for people to see. And if it’s hard to see, it’s hard to comprehend the changes.
Antelope Island State Park Ranger Jeremy Shaw recalled several times when Wasatch Front locals ventured to the park, surprised to find the island’s mountainous spine wasn’t the lake’s western shore.
“They didn’t realize there was still 40 miles of lake on the other side,” he said.
Antelope Island, the largest island on the lake, has been a state park since the late 1970s. In the last few years, there’s been an uptick in visitation — but not from locals. Wasatch Front residents only account for 27 percent of the park’s visitors, Shaw said.
It wasn’t always that way. Grand bathing resorts popped up on the lake’s beaches and drew throngs of bathers undeterred by bugs, salt or smell. But the capriciousness of the lake left resorts high and dry, or occasionally submerged. Widespread ownership of the automobile eventually took potential visitors to more stable landmarks or, in many cases, they stayed home to watch TV.
THE BIGGEST HURDLE
Still, in her study, Trentelman managed to find many locals still fiercely attached to the lake. They’d grown up bobbing like corks in the water, collecting jars full of “sea monkeys,” canoeing with scout troops, exploring islands, exploring marshes, exploring endless shorelines and salt flats, counting birds by day and counting stars by night.
“Kids getting to know these places really made a difference,” Trentelman said. “I think that’s part of the solution. If we want people to care about places, we have to let kids play in them.”
Shaw, the Antelope Island park ranger, wants more kids playing at the park. He admits it’s his biggest hurdle.
“The way society interacts with our outdoors has changed,” he said. “I say that to my staff all the time, ‘How do we get kids out here?’ Because those are the people who will use the park when we’re gone. I’ve got to get those kids to look up from their iPads at a sunset at Antelope Island.”
Jolene Rose, a biologist at the park, remembers long Saturdays spent at Antelope Island at a child. She says it’s what sparked her interest in becoming a biologist and spending long days outside in the field.
“If we got that local visitation number higher, they’d come here and go ‘wow, we understand,’” she said. “Maybe there would be changes.’”