The Great Salt Lake, often overlooked among America’s natural wonders, is now teetering on the brink of an environmental disaster. The worst drought in modern history is gripping the western United States, and this massive, saline lake in Northern Utah, once spanning a surface area larger than the entire state of Delaware, is shrinking at an alarming rate.
Several “trigger points” signal that something is awry in this crisis. For recreational enthusiasts, the most immediate sign is the inability to launch watercraft due to diminishing water levels. For the local ecosystem and economy, the threats are even more substantial. However, an often overlooked and concerning aspect is toxic dust pollution.
As it dries, the lake bed exposes what could be termed the “potential Pandora’s box” of pollutants. Naturally occurring and human-induced arsenic and other metals are found in the lake. The retreating waters have revealed an estimated 800 square miles of the exposed lakebed, equivalent to the surface area of the entire island of Maui.
Research indicates three primary dust “hot spots” with the highest potential to affect northern Utah communities: Farmington Bay in Davis County, Bear River Bay near Brigham City and Ogden, and the lake’s remote northwest boundary in Box Elder County. These areas, predominantly exposed to silt, clay, and other erodible materials, make up the majority of dust emissions and pose potential health risks to residents of these communities.
However, the full impact on human health remains uncertain. Although high levels of arsenic, copper, and other heavy metals have been detected in the dust, further research is required to determine their effects on people. However, the need for vigilance and comprehensive study to assess this evolving threat is clear.
While the issue of dust pollution looms, the community faces other pressing challenges tied to water usage and conservation. Utah’s per-person water use is among the highest in the United States, partly due to the state’s low pricing of water resources, which fails to incentivize water conservation. The situation is such that even attempts by residents to conserve water, for instance, by not watering their lawns during drought, are met with resistance from homeowners’ associations.
Efforts to Address the Crisis
Local authorities have made efforts to address this crisis. Approved measures include funding studies of water needs, easing the buying and selling of water rights, and mandating the inclusion of water in cities’ long-term planning. However, more immediate impact proposals like mandatory water-efficient appliances in new homes or increased water pricing have faced rejection.
The situation of the Great Salt Lake mirrors the distressing story of Owens Lake in California. A century ago, Owens Lake was a 100-square-mile water body. But it dried up when Los Angeles diverted the lake’s water sources to meet its growing needs. Today, Owens Lake stands as one of the most significant sources of dust pollution in the United States, even though Los Angeles has invested $2.5 billion in mitigating the dust problem.
Learning from Owens Lake’s predicament, it is evident that Utah faces a formidable challenge with the Great Salt Lake. The immediate solution — refilling the lake — is daunting, considering the extensive upstream water diversions and the prolonged megadrought. It took over $2 billion to mitigate the dust problem in Owens Lake, and even then, the only real solution was to refill the lake. This could be an omen of what’s in store for the Great Salt Lake, and by extension, for Utah.
This environmental crisis demands immediate attention and sustained efforts over a long period. As the lake continues to dry up, the urgency to act increases. Indeed, the Great Salt Lake’s struggle encapsulates a much larger global narrative: the need for holistic water management and conservation efforts, increased environmental awareness, and a concerted effort to understand the long-term impacts of our actions on precious ecosystems.
The fate of the Great Salt Lake should serve as a wake-up call. To ensure a sustainable future, we must value and understand the risks of neglecting our natural resources. It’s high time to turn the tide before it’s too late.
The Issue of Heavy Metals and the Need for Detox
Beyond the immediate physical implications of the drying Great Salt Lake, an invisible yet potentially grave concern looms: the lakebed’s significant heavy metal concentration, particularly arsenic. This naturally occurring yet hazardous element could become airborne in dust storms, introducing the possibility of human exposure.
Chronic exposure to arsenic has been associated with several health issues, including skin, lung, and bladder cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease. It’s worth noting that the lakebed also contains other heavy metals such as lanthanum, lithium, zirconium, and copper. While naturally occurring, increased metal concentration from drying and dust exposure raises concern. Detoxification becomes critical.
Addressing the arsenic issue calls for comprehensive research and understanding of the extent of the dust problem, mapping the frequency and concentration of heavy metals in the air, and devising methods to counter the health effects effectively. The toxic dust from the drying lakebed is not just an environmental issue—it’s a public health concern. As the lake shrinks, finding a solution becomes not just desired but imperative.
The Great Salt Lake is experiencing an environmental crisis due to a severe drought, resulting in alarming shrinkage. The diminishing water levels affect recreational activities, the local ecosystem, and the brine shrimp industry. In the drying lake bed, exposure to toxic pollutants, including arsenic and heavy metals, poses potential health risks. To mitigate environmental and public health concerns, comprehensive research, holistic water management, and effective solutions are needed. Stakeholders are making efforts to address the crisis.
- Flavelle, Christopher, and Bryan Tarnowski. “As the Great Salt Lake Dries up, Utah Faces an ‘Environmental Nuclear Bomb.’” The New York Times, 7 June 2022,www.nytimes.com/2022/06/07/climate/salt-lake-city-climate-disaster.html.
- Blakowski, Molly, et al. “Heavy Metals in Dust from the Shrinking Great Salt Lake: Where Do They Come from and Where Do They Go?” NASA/ADS, ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2021AGUFM.B41A..06B/abstract.
- “Utahns Are Often Knocked as the Most Wasteful Water Users in the U.S. Are the Numbers Misleading?” The Salt Lake Tribune, 19 Nov. 2022,www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2022/11/19/utahns-are-often-knocked-most/.
- “How Owens Lake Became a Disaster and Why It Could – but Need Not – Happen to the Great Salt Lake.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 11 Oct. 2022,www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2022/10/10/how-owens-lake-became-disaster/.
- Hong, Young-Seoub et al. “Health effects of chronic arsenic exposure.” Journal of preventive medicine and public health = Yebang Uihakhoe chi vol. 47,5 (2014): 245-52. doi:10.3961/jpm