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A new study shows what areas are impacted more by Great Salt Lake dust

Posted at 2:02 PM, Jul 04, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — A new study from the University of Utah highlights communities that are being significantly impacted by dust blowing off a shrinking Great Salt Lake.

Derek Mallia, a research professor at the U's Department of Atmospheric Sciences, created models of where dust goes. While hypothesizing the dust would simply be homogeneous, his data modeling actually found dust was significantly more pronounced in west side communities.

"We're already seeing where the western side of the valley, it’s dustier relative to the eastern part of the valley," Mallia told FOX 13 News on Thursday.

The Great Salt Lake dropped to its lowest level in recorded history in 2022 as a result of water diversion, drought and other impacts from a changing climate. It presents a significant threat to public health, wildlife and Utah's economy in the form of reduced snowpack (where 95% of Utah's drinking water comes from), toxic dust (arsenic is among the minerals in the lake bed) and other harms.

Mallia's scenarios look at the Salt Lake Valley if the lake continued to decline. Maps with red heat spots explode dramatically. He also ran scenarios if more water got into the lake.

"The good news is if we start putting water back into the Great Salt Lake? We can also get the opposite effect which is the air quality will improve at a much quicker rate," he said.

The study also had a sociological component to it, finding that Hispanic/Latino and Pacific Islander communities were significantly more impacted by Great Salt Lake dust.

"This study adds another piece which is this environmental justice component," said Sara Grineski, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at the U, who handled that aspect of the study. "That if we can actually preserve the lake, we can help in all those ways. But we can also reduce some of the disparities in exposure locally by reducing the dust."

To hear that some communities of color are impacted more by Great Salt Lake dust isn't surprising to environmentalists like Olivia Juarez at Green Latinos.

"The simple way to answer it is because communities of color have largely lived along the west side of the Salt Lake Valley of the greater Wasatch Metro area," they said.

Juarez said communities of color are closer to industrial pollution sources already and have been in the impact zone from a shrinking Great Salt Lake. They referred to the area as a "sacrifice zone" when it comes to environmental pollutants.

But the U study found the simplest solution to reversing air quality and other problems associated with the Great Salt Lake remains getting more water into it. That would help not just west side communities, but all communities around the lake who see impacts from PM2.5 and PM10.

"Getting the Great Salt Lake at what we refer to as average lake levels would definitely be a substantial improvement in air quality across the region — across the Salt Lake Valley, Davis County, Weber County," Mallia said.

Utah political leaders have reacted to the Great Salt Lake's plight with alarm, passing water conservation bills and pumping more than $1 billion into measures designed to help the lake long-term. Many of those measures are still being rolled out on Utah's Capitol Hill.

For House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, whose legislative district includes many of the communities identified in the study, it is another call for urgency.

"What it should tell my colleagues is if we care about all Utahns, then we need to really look at the Great Salt Lake," she told FOX 13 News on Thursday.

Rep. Romero said she personally knows people with asthma and other breathing problems from years of exposure to industrial pollutants, particulates and other things on the west side.

"I see it all the time with my allergies and I know many people here on the west side see it here, too," she said. "The question is, what can we do about it?"

Rep. Romero said she and some of her Democratic colleagues in the Utah legislature have fought for more air quality monitors in west side neighborhoods. While a large amount of Great Salt Lake-related bills passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, not a single bill directly dealing with air quality passed the Utah State Legislature this year.

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—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at