ANTELOPE ISLAND, Utah — As the Great Salt Lake continues to shrink, scientists, environmentalists and political leaders have expressed alarm at the potential for air pollution problems to increase along the Wasatch Front.
The lake will continue to decline in the coming days and months. It has been shrinking since 1986, when it was at an all-time high. The impacts of development and water diversion, climate change and drought are hitting.
"As the lake is drying up, it’s exposing a significant amount of lake bed," said Dr. Kevin Perry, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah. "It’s exposed more than 750 square miles of lake bed."
Dr. Perry has been studying the lake bed, even bicycling around the entire lake to take samples. What his research has found raises some concern for Utah's air quality.
"There are several contaminants of potential concern and arsenic is one of those contaminants," Dr. Perry said. "We would have to be exposed quite frequently in order for it to pose a potential health concern, but that’s only part of the issue. The particulate matter that comes off of the lake in and of itself, regardless of its chemical composition, is unhealthy when the concentrations reach high enough."
Governor Spencer Cox expressed alarm at the Great Salt Lake hitting the new low. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also expressed her concern.
"The evaporation of the Great Salt Lake is yet another tangible, visible indicator of the serious impacts of climate change on Salt Lake City," she said in a statement on Wednesday. "The shrinking of the lake not only destroys critical habitat and impacts wildlife, it exposes our residents to the likelihood of dirty, toxic air in our valley. We know this has serious implications for health and for our economy. It’s critical that we protect this unique ecosystem for so many reasons."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson worried about the impacts on air pollution.
"It would be a tragedy to see Utah’s progress in reducing air pollution reversed because of a dried up Great Salt Lake. The dust from the lake bed contains many of the chemicals we have been working to reduce over the past couple decades," she said. "It is incredibly important for Salt Lake County residents to practice water conservation measures to prevent further decreases in the lake’s water levels."
But environmentalists and political leaders say it is not too late to save it.
"We can protect health. We can protect a system that’s hemispherically significant, economically valuable," said Lynn De Freitas, the director of Friends of Great Salt Lake.
She called for policy changes on water diversion. It's something one Utah lawmaker has considered.
"We need greater legal recognition for the value of water that’s left in the lake," said Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville. "In the eyes of the law, even today, all the water that reaches the lake is considered 'wasted.' And the system is set up to get everyone to use the water before it gets to the lake so that it’s bone dry. Well, that’s a problem."
Rep. Hawkes sponsored a resolution in 2019 calling for increased protections for the Great Salt Lake. He said the lake provides massive benefits for northern Utah — economic, cultural and environmental.
"It’s tied to our air quality. It’s tied to our snowpack. Even as something as simple as a soda can that somebody picks up has magnesium from the Great Salt Lake," Rep. Hawkes said.
Throughout its history, water that ends up in the Great Salt Lake has been deemed to have "no beneficial use." That's despite it generating over a billion dollars a year in mineral extraction, brine shrimp harvest and recreation and tourism. The lake is also a refuge for millions of migratory birds.
Rep. Hawkes said it's time to have conversations about water diversion to see if they can get more going into the lake to save it. They have already discussed utilizing "water banking," and other measures to help protect the Great Salt Lake's ecosystem.
"We need to come up with tools that allow us to get the water into the lake that’s really a win-win," he said.
De Freitas said her group supported ideas to encourage more resources going into the lake. Any legislation on the topic could be considered by the Utah State Legislature next year.
"We have to incorporate the lake in the conversation of diversions," she said.