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Lake’s economic potential researched

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Westminster College students perform experiments at the Great Salt Lake as part of the Great Salt Lake Institute research team.

Westminster College students perform experiments at the Great Salt Lake as part of the Great Salt Lake Institute research team.

Westminster College

The economic potential held by one of Utah's largest bodies of water is the focus for a new resource grounded at Westminster College.

Partnerships formed within the newly created Great Salt Lake Institute aim to discover some of the long-kept secrets of the lake, which institute director and associate professor of biology Bonnie K. Baxter says is "undervalued, unique and understudied."

"We can look at that as a detriment or as an opportunity," she said. "I see it as a great opportunity. Despite its unique qualities, Great Salt Lake has received little academic attention, and it therefore offers new opportunities for discovery and potential insight."

The Great Salt Lake Institute, Baxter said, will be a collaborative effort among those interested in facilitating and promoting research, education and stewardship concerning the lake. It will involve coordinating interest in the lake, facilitating conversation about research possibilities and forming a cooperation with those involved in the ecology, geology and biology at the lake.

"The big questions can't be answered by a single entity," Baxter said, adding that the collaborative efforts are a "dream come true" for her, for she has been researching the lake and its microorganisms for years.

Most of the interest generated by the lake so far has been from out-of-state parties, and Baxter hopes having the institute in a central location will foster a more accepting atmosphere within the valley.

"There is a historical distaste for this lake in this valley," she said, adding that local residents perhaps don't respect the lake because its water is not drinkable. What people don't understand, she said, is that the Great Salt Lake is "environmentally special" and contains many environmental possibilities.

"The collective talent that we have in the Great Salt Lake community holds the promise of good things," said Lynn De Freitas, president of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, a local nonprofit organization. The institute "will provide a heartland of resources and inspiration that will help extend the awareness and appreciation about our hemispherically important neighbor."

Research will answer questions surrounding the possibility of hydrogen-producing organisms and other bio-fuel existence in the lake, as well as potential petroleum degraders, or organisms that can live in salt water yet ingest oils, which could help to clean oil wells.

Grants from Westminster's president, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Labor are helping to fund the institute's initiatives. Kindergarten through 12th-grade students across the state already have benefitted from Westminster's study of the lake, involving them in projects and outreach programs.

A field trip to the landscape artwork "Spiral Jetty" at the north end of the lake will be the Institute's first activity and will be done in cooperation with the Friends of the Great Salt Lake Forum next week. For more information about the Institute, visit www.greatsaltlakeinstitute.org.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com