August 20, 2021

Will We Choose to Save the Great Salt Lake? Part 2: People Need the Lake They Don't Love

The Nature Conservancy • In this three-part series, we'll explore the complex story of a natural wonder whose fate will be decided on our watch.

The Unfavorable Lake Effect 

While there is a conservation community that embraces the Great Salt Lake’s worth—and birders have certainly increased in number (the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival is entering its 22nd year)—the rest of the world has been a slow sell. In a desert state, where freshwater is like gold, and unique outdoor marvels abound, the salty, pungent Lake has remained decidedly underappreciated.

“Not too long ago, my view of the Great Salt Lake didn't differ much from that of a friend who described it as a ‘giant stinky mudhole,’ says Representative Tim Hawkes, a Republican state legislator from Centerville, Utah.  “I had no idea of its value and figured that any water that made it into the main body of the Lake was wasted because the water was so salty as to be good for nothing.” 

Hawkes, who is now General Counsel to Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative and is leading efforts in the Utah State Legislature to enact policy changes to protect the Lake, knows his dismal first impression is not uncommon.  But Hawkes had an awakening, and he’s on a mission to share it with his fellow legislators. 

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much the Lake is connected to our lives not just here locally, but regionally, nationally, and even internationally,” Hawkes says. “I know now that it's a vital and precious resource that we can't afford to lose.” 

Just how precious? We know the birds need the Lake. But what about people?  Let’s break it down.

Dangerous Dust

As a lake shrinks, more lakebed is exposed, and fine particles of dust become airborne. This is a lesson that has already been learned—the hard way.  Take one example: Owens Lake, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, which was desiccated by water diversions in the 1920s. Its exposed lakebed became one of the nation’s largest sources of PM10 air pollution. Those are dust particles small enough to get into your nose, throat and lungs, and are linked to cancer, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks as well as asthma and bronchitis. Even if you set aside the devastating health impacts, there’s also the price tag—more than two billion dollars—to try to undo the damage. As Los Angeles has had to re-water Owens Lake, residents paid for it in their water bills. For perspective: The Great Salt Lake is 16 times bigger than Owens Lake.

Dr. Greg Carling, a geology professor from Brigham Young University, explains: “I think there are many reasons to keep water in the Great Salt Lake, but holding down the fine particles in the lakebed – that is reason enough. It should motivate us.” Carling is part of a team researching dust in the West. Their recent study showed that 90 percent of dust along Utah’s Wasatch Front already comes from dried up lakebeds and desert basins.

Carling’s colleague, Dr. McKenzie Skiles, a geography professor with the University of Utah, studies another aspect of Lake-born dust. Hip deep in snowdrifts at her monitoring site in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Skiles measures aerosols in the air and snow. Her findings: dust from the Great Salt Lake’s exposed bed is being deposited on the Wasatch Mountains, and it’s darkening the snow, causing it to melt faster.

“This is a story that’s not told enough,” stresses Skiles. “Human activity is directly linked to dust, and the ripple effect is huge.” Skiles’ research revealed that in just one spring storm, the amount of dust blowing off the Great Salt Lake accelerated mountain snowmelt by five days. For Utah’s water managers, and for anyone financially tied to Utah’s epic powder, the timing and pace of snowmelt are critical. “The implications for our water systems are serious,” says Skiles. “Eighty percent of our water comes from snow. Our current models don’t account for the impact of dust. We are uncovering a whole different aspect to the importance of keeping water in the Great Salt Lake.”

While we’re on the topic of snow and mountains, there’s one more piece to the Lake story—the weather it generates itself. Every winter, when cold winds blow in just the right direction and at the right speed over the warm air rising from the Lake’s salty, unfrozen waters, we see “Lake effect” storms. The upshot: heavy bands of snow dump over the Wasatch Mountains—and some of Utah’s most popular ski resorts.

Dollars, Jobs and Seafood

Are you keeping up?  Even if you’re not a Utahn (or a Utah skier), chances are the Great Salt Lake is still a part of your life. One reason why: America’s love of seafood. When the Lake’s water levels drop, salinity increases dramatically, threatening the lifecycle of a particularly unique Lake inhabitant: brine shrimp, Artemia franciscana.  Also known as sea monkeys, these algae-eating crustaceans are just 15mm in size, yet they are a huge component of the Lake ecosystem. They are a critical food source for the birds, and they are a global commodity.

Each winter, regulated by the State of Utah, brine shrimpers haul around 9,000 tons of brine shrimp cysts out of the Great Salt Lake. The cysts are dormant eggs, which are sold to hatcheries as far away as southeast Asia to provide a nutrient-rich food source for farm-raised shrimp and fish. This is the same seafood that ends up on your plate. Today, about 90 percent of the farmed shrimp we consume in the United States is imported, and nearly 40 percent of the world’s supply of brine shrimp eggs—the food that grows the shrimp you eat—comes from the Great Salt Lake. 

Don Leonard, president of the brine shrimp industry trade association in Utah, spells it out: “a healthy brine shrimp resource secures essential health for larval stage fish and shrimp – which play a necessary role in providing much-needed healthy protein for people in both developing and developed countries around the world.”

Leonard also serves as Chair of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council (GSLAC), established in 2010 to help advise the State of Utah on the health and sustainability of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. GSLAC has played a lead role in documenting the economic threats emerging as the Lake declines. A GSLAC study revised in 2019 found that: “the potential costs of a drying Great Salt Lake could be as much as $1.69 billion to $2.17 billion per year and over 6,500 job losses.”

This eye-popping price tag includes not only brine shrimpers but also Lake recreation and tourism, and industries built on extracting or processing minerals from the Lake. North America’s only magnesium producer operates on the Lake, extracting a mineral that ends up in a vast array of products from aluminum cans and computers to cell phones and cars. The Lake also yields sulfate of potash, which is used to fertilize nut and fruit crops in California and Florida. The Lake’s receding waters have already forced some of the mineral companies to make costly operation changes, such as extending canals and moving pumps to reach the water. “The message is clear and is very understandable,” says Leonard. “After being informed, most people will not accept the loss of a healthy Great Salt Lake until we have done everything in our power to preserve all that it contributes and represents.”

Don't miss out on the rest of the story! Follow us on Facebook and Instagram and register for our monthly Nature News emails to get alerted for the final part in this three part series. 

Coming Soon, Part 3: Easy Choices, Difficult Changes 

Human health. Jobs. Global industries. International wildlife significance. For the Great Salt Lake, the key boxes all seem to be checked.

But for many years, the Great Salt Lake has been an afterthought.  In fact, the State has never had a formally implemented policy to maintain Great Salt Lake water levels at any particular elevation range...

Click here to read this series on The Nature Conservancy website.