SALT LAKE CITY — When a 100-square-mile saline lake in Southern California was drained dry by Los Angeles, it ultimately became the single largest source of dust pollution in the United States.
More than $2 billion was spent to mitigate those dust impacts, introduce shallow flooding and rehabilitate the lake. By 2018, after two decades of effort and expense, Owens Lake was designated a shorebird preserve of international significance.
“By the time things reach a crisis level, it is very difficult to mitigate or turn the corner and minimize those impacts,” said Marcelle Shoop, director of the saline lakes program for the National Audubon Society.
“It is very costly to do.”
The Great Salt Lake, 19 times the size of Owens Lake, is in historic decline.
During the past 50 years, the lake logged its lowest recorded levels. Those two measurements came within the past three years — in 2016 and again in 2018, according to Cory Angeroth, director of the Utah Water Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey.
The National Audubon Society asked the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council to commission a report that looked at the aftermath of the decline of eight terminal saline lakes around the world with characteristics similar to that of the Great Salt Lake.
Research the society made available last week revealed the economic, environmental and public health impacts of dying saline lakes are incredibly costly.
Restoration in just one phase involving the Aral Sea in Central Asia was projected at more than $270 million, and a program to renovate irrigation and drainage systems to lower water consumption cost about $30 billion. An estimated 60,000 people lost their jobs when the fishery collapsed.
“There’s no Chicken Little ‘The sky is falling’ or fearmongering with this. You need look no further than to these lost or degraded systems to see that the impacts are real,” said state Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville.
Hawkes ran HCR10 that passed in Utah’s past legislative session acknowledging the dwindling levels of the Great Salt Lake and calling on Utah to act now to save the lake, rather than waiting until crisis hits.
“A stitch in time saves nine,” Hawkes said last week in response to the analysis on drying saline lakes. “I think the importance of the report is to get people to think about the lake in a different way.”
Decades ago, Hawkes pointed out, people were more connected to the Great Salt Lake than they are today. There was a train to the shore, people picnicked at Saltair, and membership in the Great Salt Lake duck club was a must “for anyone who was anyone.”
“For the average citizen today, the lake is out of sight, out of mind,” Hawkes said.
Lynn de Freitas, director of the Friends of the Great Salt Lake, said it shouldn’t be.
The largest saltwater lake in the Western hemisphere generates $1.3 billion for Utah’s economy with the industry it supports and the visitors it attracts. It is a “Pacific Flyway” for millions of migratory birds each year and attracts wildlife watchers from all over the globe.
“I think the report shows these kind of complex ecosystems are often misunderstood and the science around them is an ongoing pursuit of unlocking the mysteries of that complexity,” de Freitas said. “They are also kind of overlooked in the scheme of water, and the need for those systems to have water.”
Southern California residents found out the hard — and the expensive — way.
Dust mitigation efforts as a result of the drying of Owens Lake are estimated to reach a cost of $3.6 billion by 2025, as only a fraction of the ecosystem has been restored.
Utah air quality regulators have seen the interplay between exposed lake beds and high wind events that kick up harmful dust pollution.
“We do see it when the wind interacts with the lake bed,” said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.
Extreme high wind events disturb those exposed lake beds, as well as play areas in the western desert all the way to Nevada, he added.
The Great Salt Lake, too, plays a key role in precipitation with its lake effect snow, caused by cold air passing over warmer water.
But the chance of lake effect snow diminishes if the water diminishes.
A 2016 report by Utah State University found that levels of the Great Salt Lake have dropped 11 feet since pioneers first arrived in 1847 and it has been reduced in size by 48%.
“This (latest) paper looked at examples of where systems went belly up because of diversions,” de Freitas said, which is an ongoing conversation around the state.
“These are a handful of examples that should give us pause.”
She did stress that state and local leaders, as well as advocates and others, are engaged in multiple ways to help the lake and its ecosystem, including the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands and Gov. Gary Herbert’s state water advisory team.
Shoop said the analysis demonstrates the importance of conservation among all water users, particularly the growing Wasatch Front, so planned diversion projects like the Bear River Development plan can be delayed or potentially avoided all together.
“By conserving it can help the lake,” she said.
For de Freitas, she’s hopeful the paper keeps the conversation going about the value of the Great Salt Lake and what its destiny holds for people — both locally and globally.
“We need to get enough traction with the information it provides to keep building awareness that the future of the Great Salt Lake is now,” she said. “It’s running right through our fingers and we have to do something.”