When the pioneers first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they saw the Great Salt Lake and were disappointed with its saline waters. But they could not have guessed the lake’s critical role in the Salt Lake Valley’s ecology and economic success.
The Great Salt Lake is one of the most remarkable lakes in the United States. It is the largest saline lake, and its wetlands provide homes for nearly 2 million shore birds and several million migrating waterfowl. The lake is also an important resource of industry for salt production and brine shrimp fishing. The birds, shrimp and salt industry directly depend on the lake and its balanced salinity. In recent years, however, the flow of water into the lake has decreased to around 40 percent, and the lake area has shrunk nearly 50 percent. With lake levels lower than they have been since the lake’s inception, the ecosystem and the industry of the Salt Lake Valley will suffer.
If the lake dries up, residents of Salt Lake Valley will lose more than their namesake water body; they may also lose their snow. The dry lakebed would be an effectively infinite source of dust. When that dust settles on the “greatest snow on earth,” its dark color absorbs sunlight and accelerates snowmelt. Increased dust from human activity has already decreased snowpack across the Intermountain West. Snowpack is our water savings account, and decreasing the deposits means less water for thirsty Utahns in the summer. And, of course, less snow means less skiing for outdoor enthusiasts.
Dust would affect more than just the snow — it would directly harm the health of anyone breathing the air. The receding lake would leave behind large swaths of dry lakebed, which increases the dust in the air, causing increased respiratory infections, asthma and dangerous dust storms. The dust itself also contains heavy metals such as selenium and mercury, which have accumulated in the lake. Selenium causes birth defects, and mercury is toxic to the nervous, digestive and immune systems. The potential health impacts are frightening and widespread.
While these possible effects may sound overstated, this scenario has played out before. In the early 1900s, the city of Los Angeles purchased water rights in Owens Valley, nearly 200 miles to the north. They piped the water from Owens Lake, which like the Salt Lake, is an endorheic or terminal water body. Los Angeles now expects to spend $3.6 billion over the next 25 years to abate dust from the dry lakebed — costing more than the value of the water they piped.
So why is the Great Salt Lake draining? Although the water isn’t being piped away to another city, much of the water that normally flowed to the lake is being utilized by agriculture and industry. Pipelines, such as the one proposed from Bear Lake, threaten to remove water from the Great Salt Lake to feed high-water consuming crops like alfalfa. In addition to water used by agriculture and industry, Utahns in general use more water per person than almost any other state in the country, and our desert communities are growing at an unsustainable rate. Together, these factors have created an inordinate strain on the lake’s already depleted resources.
To prevent further piping, Utahns can work with their local legislators to consider the impact of pipelines on this critical watershed. Utahns can also contribute to water conservation by watering their lawns less and using less water in their homes. If Utahns live more water-conservative lifestyles, the valley will save millions of dollars in ecological damage and provide a safe and economically successful environment for ourselves and for future generations.