Can Utah’s Great Salt Lake Be Saved Before It’s Too Late?
Utah’s Great Salt Lake is one of the state’s treasures and is vital to the local ecosystem and economy. But since the 1980s, it’s been drying up—and now the lake’s water level is at a record low.
The lake is fed by three rivers, which are fed by Utah’s snowpack. It’s also a terminal lake, meaning that there’s no outlet for water to exit. And as the population of Utah has increased, more water has been diverted from those rivers to agriculture, industry, and local residents.
As more of the lakebed has become exposed, wind has picked up dust plumes and blown them into local communities. Dr. Kevin Perry, a professor of atmospheric science sciences at the University of Utah, discovered that those lakebed dust plumes contain heavy metals, including arsenic.
But despite these challenges, Perry and local politicians are confident that if the right water usage reductions are put in place, the lake will have a chance to bounce back. Science Friday digital producer Emma Gometz visited Perry at the Great Salt Lake in January, who describes how we got here and what the future holds.
Kevin Perry is a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Utah’s Great Salt Lake is one of the state’s treasures and is vital to the local ecosystem and economy. But since the 1980s, the lake’s water level has declined to a record low, leaving large parts of the lake bed exposed to the air and the region’s wildlife disappearing. Yet despite its bleak current state, local scientists and politicians are cautiously optimistic about the lake’s future, meaning that if the right efforts are put in place, the lake still might have a chance to bounce back. Here’s digital producer Emma Gometz talking to one of the scientists trying to save the Great Salt Lake.
EMMA GOMETZ: Coyote.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Coyote.
EMMA GOMETZ: Just making its way up the mountain.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Just being a little coyote.
EMMA GOMETZ: At a lookout point above the Great Salt Lake, I saw a few bison, high flying birds, and tiny coyotes living by the surrounding mountain range that looked straight out of Lord of the Rings. But one thing that I couldn’t get out of my head was just how quiet it was. For some people more familiar with the lake, its silence is a newer development.
KEVIN PERRY: It was only when I started studying it in detail that I realized what an absolute gem and oasis in the desert this place actually is for wildlife or serenity, for recreation. And the thought that we’re at the cusp of losing this vital ecosystem in this absolutely wonderful place just makes me really sad.
EMMA GOMETZ: We visited Dr. Kevin Perry on a brisk January morning on the lake. He’s a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, and he’s been studying the Great Salt Lake for seven years. The lake has undergone a dramatic transformation in the last century. It used to be home to millions of migratory birds, herds of large herbivores and insects. But one thing that it noticeably doesn’t have anymore is an abundance of water. As I squinted out into the distance over a lookout point, I could catch a glimpse of the lake’s water line, hundreds of meters beyond the shore. If the lake was full, it would be teeming with life. But the exposed lake bed was dry, cracking in the cold January air.
KEVIN PERRY: It would have been truly a magical place.
EMMA GOMETZ: As the lake’s water level has diminished for the last three decades, so has the ecosystem. Science Friday producer D Peterschmidt and I walked to the original shoreline of the lake, where we were met with what seemed like miles of dry sediment mounds that resembled a dead coral reef. Perry told us they used to be microbial-like communities, which are habitats made by microbes that fed the millions of brine flies and brine shrimp native to the lake. Since at the moment we were standing on dry land, we had to take his word for it.
KEVIN PERRY: 30 years ago, you were standing here right now, the water would be about six feet over your head.
EMMA GOMETZ: Although climate change and drought are a factor in the lake’s desiccation, Perry says there’s more at play.
KEVIN PERRY: So people are always asking me, is the lake shrinking because of climate change or because of the megadrought? And the answer is actually no.
EMMA GOMETZ: The Great Salt Lake is fed by three rivers, and those rivers are fed by the snow pack on the surrounding mountains. It’s also a terminal lake, meaning there’s no outlet for water to exit. So if the lake’s water sources are cut off, then it’s at risk for shrinkage, which is exactly what’s happened. Local residents, industry, and agriculture all rely on these snowpack-fed rivers for water, agriculture making up 87% of that usage. And as the population of Utah increases, more water has been diverted for those purposes.
KEVIN PERRY: We’re the second driest state in the United States, and we use water like we have an endless supply. And we’re facing the consequences of those decisions that we’ve made now. The wildlife biologists have been sounding the alarm about the shrinking Great Salt Lake for more than 20 years, and it didn’t resonate with the public.
EMMA GOMETZ: But that changed when the dust plume started. As the water has receded, the wind has picked up dust from the exposed lake bed and blown it into the local communities made up of two million residents.
KEVIN PERRY: When dust plumes come off the lake, it reduces the horizontal visibility to less than a mile, and you see this wall of dust coming. And people had to go wash their cars because of the amount of dust that was depositing on their cars. And they could see it in their gardens and on their decks. And they were wondering what it is that we’re actually breathing.
EMMA GOMETZ: Seven years ago, Perry got funding to study what exactly was in that dust. But he isn’t the type to just sit around and wait for a plume to come his way.
KEVIN PERRY: I’m just not that patient. So what I decided to do was to go out onto the lake bed using a fat tire bike and actually collect soil samples. I ended up riding more than 2,300 miles on the bike to sample all 800 square miles of the lake bed.
EMMA GOMETZ: And Perry discovered something concerning about the composition of the soil.
KEVIN PERRY: Every single measurement that I took had higher arsenic concentrations than would be recommended by the EPA.
EMMA GOMETZ: As we walked onto the lake bed with Perry, he squinted at the ground and started kicking at the crusty surface.
KEVIN PERRY: I think you’re going to be able to get some dust here. [LAUGHS]
D PETERSCHMIDT: So if it wasn’t frozen…
KEVIN PERRY: You could kick that and you’d generate a dust plume basically.
EMMA GOMETZ: Researchers like Perry have been sharing their findings with the public and raising awareness about the shrinking lake’s effects. They’ve become part-time advocates for the lake, calling up legislators, appearing on local media, and holding educational seminars. As the surface area of the exposed lake bed grows, local residents have become concerned about what might be in the lake’s dust. To what extent is this elevated level of arsenic harmful to people in local crops? That’s unknown. Researchers are working to answer those questions. But the shrinking water levels, the collapsing ecosystem, the dust plumes, the heavy metals in the soil, all of this has spurred Utahns to call up their politicians and express their concerns.
KEVIN PERRY: And the legislators have listened.
EMMA GOMETZ: Multiple bills are moving through the state Senate to address the lake’s issues. And after Utah’s Governor Spencer Cox surveyed the area, he said, quote, “On my watch, we are not allowing the lake to go dry.” Late last year, President Biden signed a federal bill for $25 million that will go towards researching local Great Basin saline lake hydrology and other conservation efforts, thanks to sponsorship by Representative Blakemore and Senator Mitt Romney.
KEVIN PERRY: The beautiful thing is that the lake is a nonpartisan issue. It affects everyone in Northern Utah and beyond.
EMMA GOMETZ: And because most of the state’s water is being used by agriculture, lake advocates have been engaged with those local stakeholders. An agriculture water optimization task force was assembled, and grant funding has been allocated to independent farmers to use less water. But is all this enough to save the Great Salt Lake before it dries up? Brigham Young University estimates that if the current rate of water loss continues, the lake will disappear in five years. And the lake has already crossed several tipping points that have fundamentally changed the current ecosystem.
KEVIN PERRY: And we’re nearing the last and final tipping point, which is the salinity tipping point.
EMMA GOMETZ: As the lake gets drier, it becomes saltier, meaning that if the lake passes a certain level of salinity, it will become too salty to support even its most salt loving wildlife, like brine shrimp. Brine shrimp and brine flies are at the base of the Great Salt Lake’s food chain. So hitting this salinity tipping point could mean food chain collapse. Despite the challenges, Perry remains hopeful.
KEVIN PERRY: Now that there’s a groundswell of support for saving the Great Salt Lake, I’m cautiously optimistic that we can change our behavior. We got into this situation from decisions that we made on how we use our water, which means that we can alter our decision-making process and we can actually turn this around.
EMMA GOMETZ: For Science Friday, I’m Emma Gometz.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Emma. If you want to read about how scientists are working together with politicians and community members to save the lake and see photos from our trip, read Emma’s full article at sciencefriday.com/SaltLake.