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Storms kick up Great Salt Lake dust that may not be good for your health

Posted at 4:47 PM, Jun 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-21 19:41:43-04

SALT LAKE CITY  — Recent wind storms that hit the Wasatch Front brought dust from the West Desert and Great Salt Lake into communities, state officials said.

Time-lapse videos (below) from FOX 13 News cameras at the Natural History Museum of Utah and on top of the Oquirrh mountains show strong winds moving in on Sunday, bringing with it a wall of dust.

Timelapse video shows dust blowing across Salt Lake Valley

"We did see dust impacts in areas both south and north of the Great Salt Lake," said Bryce Bird, the air quality director for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The bulk of the dust came from the West Desert, Bird said.

"For those areas that were downwind from the Great Salt Lake, we saw even additional dust there because of the exposed lake bed," he said. "It does concern us. It’s not unusual because of the winds."

Scientists have warned that miles of exposed lake bed as a result of the Great Salt Lake's decline could impact public health in the long term. There are metals and toxins, including arsenic, naturally occurring in the lake. Kept under water, they're not harmful. When the lake bed is exposed and dust kicks up from it, the effects have the potential to be hazardous.

"Having such a large source of dust so close to the urban areas will bring those impacts close to home and impact more people," Bird said.

For people who may have respiratory conditions like asthma or are sensitive to dust, Utah DEQ is advising them to pay attention to weather wind warnings and consider moving activities indoors.

"It’s a fine particulate that can impact our respiratory systems, so it’s something we should avoid. Where we can’t maybe do a lot to refill the Great Salt Lake right away, as people are more aware of those conditions as they see those high wind warnings, and they’re impacted by the dust, remove that exposure or reduce that exposure by moving exercise indoors," Bird said.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources told FOX 13 News the Great Salt Lake may be weeks away from dropping to a new historic low, declining as much as two more feet. It has been shrinking as a result of the mega-drought, climate change and water diversion.

The Utah State Legislature this year did pass a series of water conservation measures and funding to try to reverse the Great Salt Lake's decline. Those are just starting to go into effect now. But environmental groups believe more can be done.

"You can’t talk about the Great Salt Lake without talking about air quality and you can’t talk about the air quality along the Wasatch Front without looking to the Great Salt Lake," said Eliza Cowie, the policy director of O2 Utah.

She urged support for upcoming legislation that is designed to cut emissions in Utah in half by 2030. The bipartisan bill is being run by Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, and Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy. Sen. Cullimore first introduced the bill last year.

Cowie said there is an appetite on Utah's Capitol Hill to take on the issue.

"We have poisonous air coming at our city and at the same time we have the technology and resources to take advantage of the situation," she said.

By shifting to renewable energy sources and cutting emissions, Cowie argued, it would free up more water resources to go to the Great Salt Lake.

"If we can transfer over that energy into renewable resources, into smart city growth, into our homes and buildings, we will see increased water supplies into those tributaries into lakes like the Great Salt Lake, across the state," Cowie said.

The bill will be introduced in the 2023 legislative session that begins in January.

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.