Why isn’t the state monitoring Great Salt Lake’s dust?

Oct 14, 2022, 8:00 AM

Phill Kiddoo, air pollution control officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control Distr...

Phill Kiddoo, air pollution control officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, shows journalists a tube that collects fine particulate, one measure of how much is being blown around in the wind, at an air quality monitoring site on the north shore of Mono Lake in Mono County, California, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education, and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

Is Utah Behind the Curve when in comes to dust mitigation from the drying Great Salt Lake?

Owens Lake in California, once the nation’s largest source of dust pollution, has nine monitoring stations to determine the extent of the problem and help answer questions on what more needs to be done.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power siphoned the water back in 1913, and it wasn’t long after that it went bone dry.

Decades and $2.5 billion later, the dust is getting under control. 

The Great Salt Lake Story

Owens Lake is surrounded by those monitors that measure PM10 pollution, but in Utah there has not been that much regulatory focus on examining dust levels whipped up from the 800 square miles of exposed lakebed of the Great Salt Lake.

There have, however, been academic studies that point to the Great Salt Lake as a significant contributor of dust — as much as 30% — to the northern Wasatch Front. But a state regulatory authority like the Utah Division of Air Quality can’t manage what is not being actively measured. 

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, does not think the Great Salt Lake is at the point where it needs its own monitoring system or a regulatory authority — yet — but it could be coming if lake levels keep dropping.

“We’re not putting any kind of special regulatory oversight of just the Great Salt Lake investment into it right now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen someday,” he said. “Personally, I don’t know if it makes sense right now, but more data, if lake levels continue to decline around the Great Salt Lake, that is going to be probably helpful.”

The conundrum of monitoring 

Greg Carling, an associate professor in Brigham Young University’s Department of Geological Sciences, asserts more could be done via the Division of Air Quality or refined academic research when it comes to dust off the Great Salt Lake. 

“We need monitors east and north of the lake because that is where the dust is going to come from these southerly winds,” he said. “I think that would be the prudent thing to do.”

The issue is whether the state wants to open the door to more regulatory oversight on pollution problems that are already a headache in other areas, like PM2.5, or fine particulate matter. What would it look like to invite extra controls?

Utah has been in compliance with PM10 regulations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but if it actively seeks to measure dust-born pollution from the Great Salt Lake or the dry Sevier Lake, that calls into question if more financial investment and federal oversight are necessary.

“I am not sure what kind of trouble the state would get itself into by making those measurements. That would be interesting to know,” said Carling, adding that researchers could take up that mantle as well.

He and other researchers are already actively engaged in a study, funded in part by the state, probing dust issues, the findings of which will be telling. 

Carling said this summer has been the dustiest he and other researchers can recall since at least 2008 in the wake of the Milford Flats Fire.

“So those of us who have been looking at this the past 15 years or so are agreeing this has been the dustiest year that we can remember,” he said. “It seemed like in the spring or summer, we would have a dust event every week. Whereas in a typical year [it] might be just a few a year. … This year it seemed like it was twice that.”

Utah’s pollution problems and the priorities 

The Utah air monitoring network includes a station in west Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood, which is the closest, and another in Bountiful that measures PM10 pollution from a variety of sources.

Rich Mylott, regional spokesman for the EPA, said there are fewer PM10 sites operating in Utah as that pollution from human-made sources have dropped, and the required number of sites has decreased.

“EPA does not typically request that states shut down monitors,” Mylott said. “Any changes over time would be at the state’s discretion based on their evaluation of needs and resources, consistent with EPA review and approval.”

Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said more proactive measures might be on the table in the future, but the menu has not yet been set for the Great Salt Lake.

“There needs to be more studies to understand the other source materials and mitigation that can be done to address it,” Bird said. “As far as the design of our regulatory monitors we’re looking at assessing the impact to populations,” adding those monitors would have to reveal population being exposed.

Despite the wind and dust, Bird said the state did not violate PM10 standards, but has turned its attention to ozone and monitoring for fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 “And so the monitors that are located along the Wasatch Front are there to represent large populations,” Bird said, “and so if there was a large dust event, it would likely impact one of these regional monitors that is representative of the population being exposed.”

Rich Mylott, with the EPA, said dust monitoring from PM10 sources has dropped, as well in other areas.

“There are less PM10 sites operating in Utah as PM10 pollution levels from manmade sources have dropped, and the required number of sites has decreased. Several monitors are still in place across the state and operate as part of the state’s network to monitor for specific sources and natural dust and smoke events. I understand there are three in the Salt Lake City area, these would pick up a dust event from the Great Salt Lake.”

His agency’s priority is to directly monitor what it views as real threats to public health and coming into compliance with EPA regulations.

The threat

Bird said the top priorities for Utah are not for dust pollution, but for ozone and PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution, but that could very well change with the Great Salt Lake.

“We are actually seeing very few days right now that are impacted by the dust, but it has the potential to become worse over time. And our focus will likely need to shift at some point in the future. But right now we’re more focused on the more immediate health impacts with ozone and PM2.5,” he said.

Mylott asserted, like Bird, that the dust could pose a problem, but it is not being measured to a great extent, begging the question of when?


We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

Utah Drought

Going into this past winter, Utah was in what officials called an exceptional drought, registering ...

Adam Small

Record Utah winter makes up for years-long water shortfall

Utah has experienced a water shortfall for the past three years, but right now most of the state has exited a severe drought stage.

3 days ago

The summer heat record in 2022 for Utah shattered records. As we look to this year, meteorologists ...

Lindsay Aerts

The record-breaking heat of summer 2022 unlikely to repeat in Utah this year

The summer of 2023 was one for the Utah heat record books with a whopping 34 days of triple-digit temperatures.

3 days ago

The sun sets on the Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake on March 16. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox nominate...

Carter Williams, KSL.com

New Great Salt Lake commissioner says he hopes Utah avoids ‘Great Salt Lake fatigue’

Brian Steed wants Utahns to stay engaged in helping the lake's recovery, because it's not going to happen overnight.

4 days ago

Lake Powell is expected to rise 70 feet this Spring, but water managers said it doesn't take away t...

Adam Small

Lake Powell bounces back from record-low water levels

Lake Powell is expected to rise 40 more feet this summer, but water managers said it doesn't take away the need to conserve water in the long run.

9 days ago

wetlands at the great salt lake pictured...

Ben Winslow, FOX 13

SLC looks to preserve a chunk of Great Salt Lake land as development encroaches

The move would help keep the area as a nature preserve even as the inland port and other development moves closer and closer to the Great Salt Lake.

10 days ago

SenThere's still a lot of exposed lake bed around The Great Salt Lake and water managers say it's g...

Adam Small

Water experts say it’s going to take more than one big year to fill the Great Salt Lake

There's still a lot of exposed lake bed around The Great Salt Lake and water managers say it's going to take more than just this year to cover a lot of it again.

11 days ago

Sponsored Articles

close up of rose marvel saliva blooms in purple...

Shannon Cavalero

Drought Tolerant Perennials for Utah

The best drought tolerant plants for Utah can handle high elevations, alkaline soils, excessive exposure to wind, and use of secondary water.

Group of cheerful team members high fiving each other...

Visit Bear Lake

How To Plan a Business Retreat in Bear Lake This Spring

Are you wondering how to plan a business retreat this spring? Read our sample itinerary to plan a team getaway to Bear Lake.

Cheerful young woman writing an assignment while sitting at desk between two classmates during clas...

BYU EMBA at the Marriott School of Business

Hear it Firsthand: 6 Students Share Their Executive MBA Experience at BYU’s Marriott School of Business

The Executive MBA program at BYU offers great opportunities. Hear experiences straight from students enrolled in the program.

Skier being towed by a rider on a horse. Skijoring....

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking for a New Winter Activity? Try Skijoring in Bear Lake

Skijoring is when someone on skis is pulled by a horse, dog, animal, or motor vehicle. The driver leads the skiers through an obstacle course over jumps, hoops, and gates.

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...

Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer.

Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy.

Why isn’t the state monitoring Great Salt Lake’s dust?