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More exposed Great Salt Lake bed means increased dust storms, officials warn

Posted at 4:11 PM, May 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-31 00:26:00-04

FARMINGTON BAY, Utah  — More dust storms could blow into the Wasatch Front as a result of increasingly exposed lake bed, state leaders are warning.

"It’s common sense that when you expose another 300 to 400 square miles of lake bed and the wind kicks up, you’re going to have more dust," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in an interview with FOX 13 News following his recent appearance at the Friends of Great Salt Lake's summit on the health and future of the massive lake.

Utah's Division of Air Quality told FOX 13 News it had increasing concern about the dust storms.

"More exposed lake bed increases the potential for windblown dust. The dust can impact any city along the Wasatch Front depending on the direction and intensity of the wind," division director Bryce Bird said in a statement. "We typically see dust associated with storm fronts in the spring and fall and in the summer strong winds flowing from microburst thunderstorms. A recent cold front in April filled the Salt Lake Valley with dust originating from the now dry Farmington Bay."

The Great Salt Lake is projected to hit a new historic low this year. What's in the exposed lake bed does concern scientists, environmentalists and political leaders. Scientists have documented trace amounts of arsenic and other chemicals that would typically be covered by water.

"Some of the materials that you kick up in those dust storms? They are not healthy and so we’ve got to monitor that closely. There’s one super easy solution: put water back on that lake bed," Speaker Wilson said.

The Davis County Health Department said research is currently being conducted on the dust from the exposed lake bed.

"For those who have more respiratory concerns, always paying attention to the air quality index. When the particulate matter is high, or bad air quality days, staying inside," said Jay Clark, the department's environmental health director.

Getting more water into the lake would certainly cut the dust storms (and a dried up Great Salt Lake presents an economic and environmental catastrophe for the state). Right now, policy makers are looking at many different ways to ensure water continues to get into the lake. The legislature recently passed some bills to make it easier for environmental groups and others to secure water for the lake. Under Utah law, water rights dating back to the 1800s exist in a sort-of "use it or lose it" system.

"If you are not putting your water to beneficial use, it’s considered to be wasted and therefore should be available to other people in the system to put to beneficial use," said Emily Lewis, a water rights attorney for the law firm Clyde Snow.

Speaking at the Friends of Great Salt Lake summit earlier this month, Lewis said it is a complicated problem.

"We’ve got to think creatively about our existing laws and existing systems to incentivize using the water a little more smartly," she said.

Where water was once considered "wasted" and to have "no beneficial use" once it hits the terminal basin that is the Great Salt Lake, that viewpoint is changing. The Great Salt Lake helps generate snowpack, is a refuge for millions of birds, and generates billions in economic impact for the state, said Lynn de Freitas, Friends of Great Salt Lake's executive director.

"We’ve known all along, that it is in so many ways, economically, hemispherically, ecologically... wonderful," she said.

Speaker Wilson said it is something that will likely be discussed leading up to next year's legislative session.

"I think that’s part of the conversation. You’re already seeing some of that happen with organizations acquiring, donating some of the water rights for the Great Salt Lake," he said.

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 greatsaltlakenews.org