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.’”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

Explore the project

• Millions of birds face dire future as Great Salt Lake shrinks

• As Great Salt Lake dries up, Utah air quality concerns blow in

• Is drought to blame for drop in Utah's Great Salt Lake? Not likely

• Déjà vu: is Lake Urmia's demise a warning for Great Salt Lake?

• Why is the Great Salt Lake so smelly? That's a trick question

• Marinas in jeopardy as Great Salt Lake continues to dry up

• As Great Salt Lake shrinks, fate of nesting pelicans unknown

(33) comments

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

Agreed!

anonymous

Lake Bonneville drained, we're here today. It doesn't matter who was present to watch it, it didn't end the world. I'm still waiting to be wiped out by the killer bees also. also still waiting for your answer to fix the lake, and tomorrows disaster du hour. but if it will make you feel better I can't believe I have survived all this time without T-rex.

anonymous

At this point, your comments just expose your bias so much that it's laughable.We did not "survive" the draining of Lake Bonneville. There is only one hypothesis that humans lived on this continent during the time Lake Bonneville existed and 1) this hypothesis is presently based on very thin evidence, 2) none of that evidence is from the western part of the continent, let alone the immediate environments that surrounded Lake Bonneville.And the climate instability I mentioned earlier *is* the first edge of the ice age you dismiss so easily. But if you don't think that's a problem, then I doubt God Himself could convince you...

anonymous

Very good; it's an important issue. I would think that losing 10% of snowpack wouldn't be insignificant.

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

I did speak with some meteorologists about this, and plan to do a story about it. The "lake effect" only produces around 10 percent of the Wasatch snow, but a lot of it comes early season and is vital in building a base for the winter season ... stay tuned ...

anonymous

Really important stuff. Though I've not read the whole series yet, it doesn't appear that there's any mention of the important role the lake plays in producing lake-effect snow to the east. A shrinking lake could have significant impacts in this regard, including for our water supply. Ironically, diverting water from the lake to meet our water needs could make our water needs even greater. Dr. Dan Bedford has done some important research on this issue.

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

Also, "know your audience" might be a rule you learned in high school creative writing, but it's not a "rule" of journalism. Here's one, though, from the Society of Professional Journalists: "Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear. "

anonymous

it is important to know when that was actually possible, rather than saying such cycles are just natural for the lake. Right now, the lake is receding because of the record droughts in the entire Western US and we may be facing a second collapse of water sources and agriculture as happened in the Midwest with the Dust Bowl.And this one is likely to be much worse due to hemisphere-wide climate instability causing phenomena like the jet stream whipping north and south creating polar vertices of a depth never seen before."People can think out their own problems or pay later, they don't need my hand wringing."There is a difference between hand-wringing and thinking through the problems we are facing. The mountains you live on are not some sort of fortress against the effects the lake and its tributaries have on the environment around you. If you live anywhere in the region, you will also pay the price, no matter how you try to isolate yourself or avoid contributing to the problems. So, if only for your own sake, please contribute something to "thinking out" these problems instead of shrugging them off as someone else's responsibility.

anonymous

Your opinion of her lecturing abilities has nothing to do with her competence as a researcher.

anonymous

Nope, I live in the mountains. People can think out their own problems or pay later, they don't need my hand wringing.

anonymous

Assuming that your sensibilities represent the "local populace" is a bit egocentric. For every beer episode there are 50 self-promoting Mormon propaganda insertions. You just don't notice that.Let me paraphrase your point. "Witch! Get your torch and pitchfork!"

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

And the first rule of winning internet arguments is to anonymously call people "retards."

anonymous

You retards don't even know what I was referencing here. I'm not against drinking beer. I'm against the forced inclusion of beer just to offend the local populace in stories that don't require it. It's called professionalism. The first rule of journalism is to know your audience. Leia neglected that rule.

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

It's true the lake goes through ups and downs. Does it concern you, though, that so many people live near it now, compared to the days of the trappers, when it's approaching a 167-year low?

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

I really enjoyed speaking with her. I find people who are passionate about their subject often talk about it at length. I'm curious, why didn't you give her research much credit?

anonymous

Read a book about trappers where a local Indian chief told a trapper about how at one time he could walk from the south shore of the lake to antelope island. I want to believe it was Osborne Russell, but not sure. apparently it goes up, it goes down. Probably been doing that for awhile. maybe when the new ice age, predicted in the seventies to be here by now, actually arrives and then recedes again it will fill the lake back up.

jsucese

It's a very shallow lake any how. When I was a child in the early 70's we could walk a long time across the lake. Not much to write home about.

anonymous

Firstly I don't consider it the problem you do. We made it past the draining of lake Bonneville we'll survive this. So while waiting for the ice age predicted in the seventies to come and fill it back up, make some reservoirs to hold on to what we get when we get it. let's hear your solution.

anonymous

It does matter, because there are now millions of people living in the regions around the lake who will be affected by its loss. And when they, most likely, will have to find somewhere else to live, that will affect at least the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Consider how the world is treating the refugees of Syria, who are fleeing political and ecological ruin. The people of the Midwest fleeing the Dust Bowl were treated much the same. And so will the people of the West when the water is gone. This is the point I have been trying to make, that this is a bigger issue than just the receding Great Salt Lake.As for solutions, that's what I've come up with, that the people of the West are probably going to have to leave. You were saying it wasn't your problem, though, and more than actually expecting one person to come up with a solution on your own (which is why I just asked you to contribute something productive rather than solve the whole problem) I was trying to get you to see that it is going to affect you and that you are going to have to think about it or pay that much more later for thinking you could avoid it now.

vzgardner

Sounds to me like somebody could use a tall cold one right about now. Cheers!

anonymous

I took Sociology from Carla Trentelman about the time she was just starting her research. She rambles a lot in her lectures; I'd never give her research much credit. The cold hard truth is Weber State has a lot of incompetent educators, and she's one of them.

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

Fingers crossed!

anonymous

Like we need another Mormon POV. Pretty stupid attack someone for not writing about beer.

Sabbatical

Leia,NOAA long range forecast...El Nino is here.....South Carolina.... and we should be shoveling till late spring..let's hope so!Mack

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

Hopefully we won't need to move. :-/ http://www.standard.net/enviro...

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

Cool! They show the film at the visitor center?

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

You're right! I am so cool. And definitely not ashamed I like beer and chose to write about the fact people could drink it that one time.

anonymous

I'm shocked and saddened that Leia didn't brag about drinking a beer on the beach of the Great Salt Lake in this story. Gotta stick it to the uncool, square Utah locals by mentioning beer where you can. That'll show 'em. You're so cool, Leia.

anonymous

Bear River Bird Refuge has a movie on this topic. It was the 1st designated refuge in the US in the 20's. The area is crucial for migrating birds. It has dried up before and we know the sequelae. Tons of money and effort are invested in Bear River water management.

anonymous

Yes. It's maybe 30 min narrated by Peter Coyote

LeiaLarsen Staff
LeiaLarsen

I'm going to check it out next week. Thanks for letting me know!

mtonkinson

This isn't good news. This means our legislators will want to eventually move the Utah State prison again so that they can build on what was once the Great Salt Lake and even pass a bill to help pay to put fill dirt over the salt. When the salt finds its way to the top of this fill dirt and corrodes everything we the taxpayers will be bailing out all the homeowners and business owners who purchased structures built on the lake bed.

Sabbatical

Okay...let's say the lake dries up one day, what do we do with it then, I have my vision, what is yours?Mack

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