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One of Utah’s most unique natural treasures is disappearing


The Great Salt Lake is also known as the American Dead Sea – due to its resemblance to its much smaller Middle Eastern counterpart – but scientists fear the nickname will soon take on new meaning.

Human consumption and diversion of water has long depleted Lake Utah. His level today is a few inches from a low of 58, state officials say, and Drought conditions in the west fueled by the climate crisis have exacerbated conditions.

The worst part? It’s only july, and the lake historically does not reach its annual minimum until October.

“I’ve never seen it so bad – not in my lifetime,” said Andy Wallace, hovering over the water in a propeller plane, as he did for years as a pilot. professional.

Simply put, the largest salt lake in the Western Hemisphere is shrinking rapidly. Left alone, the lake’s footprint would stretch over 2,100 square miles, more than three times the area of ​​Houston. An analysis released last year showed that water siphoned from the rivers that feed the natural wonder had reduced its level by 11 feet, depleting the lake’s area by more than half.

“Twenty years ago it was under about 10 feet of water,” said Kevin Perry, chairman of the atmospheric science department at the University of Utah, as he rode his bike in July on the dry lake bed.

Dying organisms and arsenic

Perry and other scientists fear they are witnessing a slow-motion disaster. Ten million birds flock to the Great Salt Lake every year to feed on its now struggling marine life. More pelicans breed here than anywhere else in the country.

The problem goes up the food chain. The Utah Geological Survey openly expressed concern on Thursday that the falling lake levels threaten to kill microbials – reef-like underwater mounds that help feed the brine flies, brine shrimp and hence the 338 species of birds that visit each year.

“We consider these structures to be living rocks,” said Michael Vanden Berg, head of the investigation’s energy and mineral program. “The population of the Great Salt Lake is one of the largest accumulations of modern microbials in the world.”

If the lake continues to retreat to historic levels, a hitherto unseen proportion of the lake’s microbials will be exposed, according to a press release. It may only take weeks for the microbial mat to erode from “living rocks,” he said, and it could take years to recover, even if lake levels return to normal.

Brine shrimp, also known as sea monkeys, also struggle with the increasing salinity that comes with less water. It’s not just bird food. They are exported as fish food, and the commercial harvest contributes to an estimated $ 1.5 billion in savings – which, along with recreation and mineral extraction, helps feed the fishermen and others living around the Great Lake. Dirty.

The economic downturn is not the only threat to humans in the region. Utah’s soil is naturally high in arsenic, a toxic compound that causes a frightening range of health problems. When it washes downstream, it lands in the lake, Perry said. When the wind blows, as it regularly does quite violently, it lifts the dusty bed of the lake.

“One of our concerns is that the particles that come out of the lake get into people’s lungs,” he said. “Fifteen to twenty years ago, when the lake was higher, most of those dust spots were covered, and if you cover them with water, they don’t produce dust. And so as the lake receded, it’s more and more exposed more of that lake bed. … As we get more area, we have more frequent dust storms. “

Owens Lake, a mostly dry lake east of California’s Sequoia National Forest, was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct nearly a century ago, Perry noted. Although a little water returns to the lake, its dry bed is the biggest source of PM-10 pollution – large inhalable dust particles – in the country. Great Salt Lake is much larger than Owens Lake, and while the population around Owens Lake is approximately 40,000, there are over 2 million people living around Great Salt Lake, Perry points out.

“This lake could also become one of the largest sources of dust emissions in North America,” he said. “Right now the lake bed is protected by a fragile crust, and if that crust is disturbed or eroded over time, then this lake could start to emit a lot more (dust).”

“We are on the verge of a catastrophe”

Vast swathes of Lake Utah look more like Death Valley than any waterway, with the ground arid and fractured by dry heat. Other areas look like sprawling puddles. Birds wade through the mud of the shore alongside empty marinas, their holds sagging to the ground.

“The saltiest sailors on the planet have seen their sailboats hoisted out of the marinas of the Great Salt Lake by a crane in recent days, due to the drop in the level of the lake”, the Utah Rivers Board wrote in the introduction of a report warning that a proposed dam, pipeline and reservoir in the east will only exacerbate the problems.

While human behavior remains the primary concern of scientists, the lack of rain in the west does not help. The Great Salt Lake is now like water on a plate, while most lakes look like a cup, said Jaimi Butler, co-editor of the 2020 analysis showing that the lake’s area has shrunk by 51% .

Shallow waters are more prone to evaporation in drought conditions, and although the lake level fluctuates in any given year, the lake tends to bottom out in the fall, around October. The lake will continue to drop and shrink over the next three months, and the water level could drop as much as 2 more feet by Halloween, Butler suspects.

“Keeping water in the Great Salt Lake is the most important thing that keeps me awake at night,” said Butler, a wildlife biologist who grew up around the lake and who is the coordinator of the Great Salt Lake Institute of Canada. Westminster College. “We are on the brink of disaster.”

Mother Nature and the inhabitants must join forces

Butler cried as he thought of the ramifications of not taking strong action to save the waterway.

“The Great Salt Lake will be an environmental, economic and, really, cultural disaster at the same time,” she said. “I grew up here. A place becomes you.… We are all from Great Salt Lake. We all are, and we shouldn’t let it go.”

Humans created the problem, and humans will have to be part of the solution, she said. Reducing water use and increasing water utility tariffs to deter waste would be a start, she added.

Despite warning bells, water destined for Great Salt Lake continues to be diverted to farms, ranches and towns – the latter enjoying some of the cheapest water in the country, Butler said.

Salt Lake City residents paid one of the lowest water rates in major US cities, according to an analysis by Circle of Blue, a nonprofit organization that advocates for responsible management of water resources. A family of four using 100 gallons per day paid $ 32 per month in 2018, about half of what New Yorkers paid, one-third of what Atlanteans paid, and a quarter of what San Franciscans paid that year. Among the larger cities, only the people of Memphis paid less.

But it appears residents around the Great Salt Lake have acted more conscientiously, said Marcie McCartney, water conservation and education manager for the Utah Water Resources Division.

“Everyone around and in this basin is doing everything they can to use the water as efficiently as possible,” she said. “We are seeing a lot of (water) savings this year, which is great, but the Great Salt Lake is definitely suffering, and the only way to increase the level of these lakes is a better year of water for our mantle. snowy.”

Those responsible for monitoring snow runoff in streams and reservoirs must calculate the amount of water needed for water supplies – potable, agricultural, etc. – and the rest can be dumped downstream into the Great Salt Lake, McCartney said. This year’s “poor snowpack” has melted too quickly, she said, “and the ground is really thirsty.”

“Mother Nature is going to take her share first, and we’ll have the rest,” she said.

In November, Butler co-wrote an obituary for Great Salt Lake in Catalyst Magazine, based in the Utah capital.

“The Great Salt Lake experienced its last sparkling sunset today, succumbing to a long struggle with chronic diversions exacerbated by climate change,” he began. “Its dusty remains will be scattered throughout the Salt Lake Valley for millennia – our air quality monitors will constantly remind us of its passage.”

The article laid out the history of the reservoir, how it ended up in dire straits, and what the affected Utahans can do to change the narrative and amplify their voices to save the beloved body of water.

“There were measures to prevent the death of the Great Salt Lake, but it was too little, too late,” the obituary read. “She has supported Utah’s economy for many years, but we haven’t adequately funded her health care on time. If we had, we might not be mourning her death today. ‘hui. “

Speaking to CNN, Butler reiterated many of those points, imploring, “We have changed our world and we need to change our behaviors to conserve incredible ecosystems that include humans like here in Great Salt Lake.”

The-CNN-Wire
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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion