Recently local, national and international news outlets have published numerous stories about the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake. Last year, one of our conservative lawmakers, Joel Ferry, now director of the Department of Natural Resources, said to The New York Times, referring to the Great Salt Lake, “We have this potential environmental nuclear bomb that’s going to go off if we don’t take some pretty dramatic action.” The environmental groups in the state agree with Ferry. However, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Rivers Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and American Bird Conservancy are suing his agency because the state is not defusing that “nuclear bomb,” and precious time is being lost. 

Lake experts released a report concluding the lake would essentially disappear within five years unless diversions of its inlets were cut 50%. The Great Salt Lake and its extended ecosystem is “unparalleled in its value” to over 10 million migratory birds, including 338 species, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Losing the lake would be their death sentence. But the consequences to 2.5 million people that live along the Wasatch Front, immediately downwind of the Great Salt Lake, would also be profound.

Utah is already plagued by three significant types of air pollution. Ozone is the product of an atmospheric reaction catalyzed by heat. As the planet becomes ever hotter, ground level ozone concentrations are increasing globally. With our high elevation and more ultraviolet light, Utah is at even greater risk for high ozone. We are all too familiar with our classic winter inversion particulate pollution, and wildfire smoke is becoming a routine feature of much of the summer. The last thing Utah needs is a fourth source of air pollution, but that’s exactly what is evolving with the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake. We now have about 15 significant dust storms a year, whereas 15 years ago we seldom had any. And most of them occur in the spring and fall when we would otherwise have our best air quality of the year.

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Dust pollution stimulates inflammation, the same physiologic response as other types of air pollution. The Great Salt Lake dust is also laced with a potpourri of heavy metals, toxic salt, pesticides and industrial chemicals that have their own health hazards — cancer, cardiovascular, reproductive and brain diseases. The lake has had some of the highest levels of mercury (the most potent neurotoxin known) of any inland body of water in the country, so its lake bed dust is particularly hazardous. Dust storms from the Great Basin also expose Utahns to residual radioactive elements from the 40 years of nuclear weapons testing in Nevada that didn’t end until 1992.   

But we also have more specific research on populations surrounding other terminal lakes throughout the globe that have dried up from diverting their inlets, such as Iran’s Lake Urmia, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Owens Lake in California. The dewatered Owens Lake is now the largest source of particulate air pollution in the country and has set the record for air pollution measured in the U.S. The Great Salt Lake lake bed is 19 times larger than Owens Lake.

The Aral Sea is now 10% of its original size. On average, 200,000 tons of its lake bed dust are launched into the atmosphere every day. The public health consequences in the region have been harsh. Life expectancy has dropped 13 years. Rates of birth defects, newborn and maternal anemia and mortality have skyrocketed. Respiratory illnesses, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, brucellosis, multiple types of cancer, liver, digestive, kidney and eye diseases are now much more common. While this is ominous for Utah, the rest of the country should know that the smallest, and therefore the most dangerous, dust particles from deserts and dry lake beds can be transported thousands of miles. A dried up Great Salt Lake is not just Utah’s problem. 

Further shrinking of the lake will aggravate the drought, because the “lake effect” augments the quality and quantity of Wasatch Mountain snow pack, while lake bed dust accelerates melting of that snow pack about 17 days earlier than it should

There is no painless solution to this dilemma. But the state must curb enough water use to save the lake, because letting it disappear is the worst possible outcome for, by far, the greatest number of people. We expect the courts will see it that way too.

Dr. Brian Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.