People need the lake they don’t love

This is Part Two of a three-part series

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 watersystems 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 toprovide 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 shrimpwe 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 revisedin 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.”