Great Salt Lake in Utah hits record highs amid two decades of drought, triggering ‘devastating’ impact warning
The largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere has hit its lowest level in nearly 200 years as researchers and politicians warn of serious threats to wildlife and people along its shores.
- Nearly 800 square miles of lake bed are exposed
- Exposed lake bed forms clouds of dust containing calcium, sulfur and arsenic
- Water flowing to the lake is diverted for consumption, industry and agriculture
The surface of Utah’s Great Salt Lake reached its lowest point since 1847 on July 3, falling to an average of 4,190 feet (1,277 meters) above sea level, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).
It’s a grim milestone for the lake amid a two-decade drought.
It is expected to decline further until fall or early winter, when incoming water equals or exceeds evaporation.
The nearby metropolis of Salt Lake City is already subject to dust storms that experts say could get worse.
“Saving the Great Salt Lake, so that we don’t become Dust Lake City, is making a conscious choice that the lake is precious and the lake needs to be supplied with water,” said expert Kevin Perry. the atmosphere.
For years, water that would otherwise end up in the lake has been diverted for human consumption, industry and agriculture.
Combined with the ongoing drought and exacerbated by climate change, more and more lake bed has been exposed.
The lake holds just over a quarter of the current volume of water as it did at its highest point in 1987, the USGS said.
The lake has lost almost half its area compared to the historical average, exposing some 800 square miles (2,000 km2) of lake bed – an area larger than the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Layers of land that were once underwater swirled into clouds of dust containing calcium, sulfur and arsenic, a natural element linked to cancer and birth defects.
The exposed lake bed is also contaminated with tailings from copper and silver mining.
“If you breathe in this dust over a long period of time, like decades or longer, it can lead to an increase in different types of cancer, such as lung cancer, bladder cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and others,” Mr. Perry said.
10 million birds and a multi-million dollar industry ‘at risk’
The reef-like underwater structures harbor a microorganism that serves as food for brine shrimp, in turn an important food for birds, but the structures dry out and turn gray when exposed.
Westminster College Great Salt Lake researcher Alvin Sihapanya put his hands in the water and showed two palms full of water teeming with tiny shrimp.
“It’s super sad and devastating that these guys are exposed,” Mr Sihapanya said of the structures.
National Audubon Society Saline Lakes Program Outreach Associate Max Malmquist said about 10 million birds of more than 330 species migrate or live in the lake each year.
Half of the North American continent’s ruddy ducks nest there, while half of its ruddy ducks nest here, according to the society’s Great Salt Lake branch.
Some 90% of the world’s eared grebe population congregate here, feasting on brine shrimp.
Shrimp are also harvested in a multi-million dollar brine industry, part of a lake-generated economy that officials estimate at $2 billion a year.
With public awareness and growing pressure to act, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed into law 11 bills related to conservation and water policy during the last legislative session.
Longer term solutions will require large consumers in agriculture, industry and municipalities to use less water and give more to the lake.
“As we reach these new records, we start to run the risk that all of these values that we derive from the Great Salt Lake are in jeopardy,” Utah State Representative Tim Hawkes said.
“And that’s what’s driving this political pressure to do something.”