SCIENCE

Experts say Great Salt Lake problems require more water

Oct 26, 2021, 6:00 AM
great salt lake tar...
Low water levels exposed tar at the Great Salt Lake. Photo: KSL TV

SALT LAKE CITY — Experts studying the Great Salt Lake say the problems of dust in the air and threats to the ecosystem could be solved by getting more water into the lake. 

Great Salt Lake problems 

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking and with that comes a myriad of issues for Utahns. 

Professor of Biology and director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, Dr. Bonnie Baxter, says fragile ecosystems are threatened with outright obliteration.

“I’ve been studying the lake for more than two decades,” Dr. Baxter said. “We’ve been sounding the alarms because of some of the things we’ve seen this year, some of the impact on biology in particular.” 

Dr. Baxter says the low lake level is endangering that biology as well as creating potential economic concerns. 

“I think a lot of people maybe don’t realize how many jobs, thousands of jobs, that are created by [the] Great Salt Lake in the brine shrimp industry [and] the mineral extraction industry,” she said. 

Read more: Great Salt Lake dust could be toxic, bad for snow season

Utah’s famous ski industry might eventually hurt as well. A dwindling lake effectively means less lake effect snow

“When the lake shrinks, the dust around the lake blows on the snow. Then the snow melts more quickly because it absorbs more sunlight because it’s no longer as white,” said the biology professor. 

Snow that melts more rapidly then affects the spring runoff by evaporating more quickly. That spells problems for our water storage situation and also brings less water to the Great Salt Lake. 

Not to mention, the dust from the exposed lakebed contains potentially toxic levels of arsenic. After decades of exposure to that arsenic, Utah could see an increase in the rates of lung cancer.

The lake needs more water

Years of drought and continuous diversions of rivers and streams have left the Great Salt Lake in a bind for years now. 

University of Utah Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Dr. Kevin Perry, says the legislature needs to take action. 

“We have a lot of upstream needs for that water and right now, the lake is just at the mercy of those upstream users and whether or not they actually allow that water to flow,” said Dr. Perry. 

Citing a recent Utah State University study, Dr. Perry says Utah diverts approximately 30% too much water for the long-term sustainability of the lake. 

“If we continue business as usual and divert all the water that we have allocated, the lake will continue to shrink on average over decades. That’s what we’ve been experiencing over the last 150 years. The lake has been decreasing at a rate of about 0.5 feet per decade,” he said. 

Doctors Perry and Baxter say some state lawmakers are working on legislative solutions for the next session which might provide some aid. 

“We are not experts in water law, nor do we have the ability to craft new legislation. So, I think that the solutions are going to be on the table of the legislators in the spring and they are…really interested in solving this problem,” said Dr. Baxter. 

Dr. Perry says any additional water rights allocated for the lake or donation of water will help make a difference in the long term. 

Don’t bust the crust

As for the dust problem, Dr. Perry says there is a fragile cryptobiotic crust covering much of the exposed lakebed. He strongly believes we need to protect it by banning ATVs and other recreational vehicles from the lakebed.  

“If we disturb the crust or it erodes over time, then the frequency of these dust storms and the severity of these dust storms will only get worse,” said Dr. Perry. 

However, the ideal solution would be to cover that crust with more water. 

Both doctors strongly urge Utahns to get out and experience the lake to get a better understanding of how remarkable it is and the importance of saving it from evaporating completely.

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Experts say Great Salt Lake problems require more water