Utah’s Salt Lake at Climate Tipping Point

June 7, 2022

I’ve been focused on the ongoing threats to Lake Powell, Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam and the Colorado River in general, which is bad enough, but this story from the New York Times on the condition of Great Salt Lake and a whole new level of threat to Utah is next level.
I’ll give you the gist but do go take a look if you can.

New York Times:

SALT LAKE CITY — If the Great Salt Lake, which has already shrunk by two-thirds, continues to dry up, here’s what’s in store:

The lake’s flies and brine shrimp would die off — scientists warn it could start as soon as this summer — threatening the 10 million migratory birds that stop at the lake annually to feed on the tiny creatures. Ski conditions at the resorts above Salt Lake City, a vital source of revenue, would deteriorate. The lucrative extraction of magnesium and other minerals from the lake could stop.

Most alarming, the air surrounding Salt Lake City would occasionally turn poisonous. The lake bed contains high levels of arsenic and as more of it becomes exposed, wind storms carry that arsenic into the lungs of nearby residents, who make up three-quarters of Utah’s population.

“We have this potential environmental nuclear bomb that’s going to go off if we don’t take some pretty dramatic action,” said Joel Ferry, a Republican state lawmaker and rancher who lives on the north side of the lake.

As climate change continues to cause record-breaking drought, there are no easy solutions. Saving the Great Salt Lake would require letting more snowmelt from the mountains flow to the lake, which means less water for residents and farmers. That would threaten the region’s breakneck population growth and high-value agriculture — something state leaders seem reluctant to do.

Last summer, the water level in the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest point on record, and it’s likely to fall further this year. The lake’s surface area, which covered about 3,300 square miles in the late 1980s, has since shrunk to less than 1,000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The salt content in the part of the lake closest to Salt Lake City used to fluctuate between 9 percent and 12 percent, according to Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor at Westminster College. But as the water in the lake drops, its salt content has increased. If it reaches 17 percent — something Dr. Baxter says will happen this summer — the algae in the water will struggle, threatening the brine shrimp that consume it.

While the ecosystem hasn’t collapsed yet, Dr. Baxter said, “we’re at the precipice. It’s terrifying.”

The soil contains arsenic, antimony, copper, zirconium and other dangerous heavy metals, much of it residue from mining activity in the region. Most of the exposed soil is still protected by a hard crust. But as wind erodes the crust over time, those contaminants become airborne.

Clouds of dust also make it difficult for people to breathe, particularly those with asthma or other respiratory ailments. Dr. Perry pointed to shards of crust that had come apart, lying on the sand like broken china.

“This is a disaster,” Dr. Perry said. “And the consequences for the ecosystem are absolutely, insanely bad.”

The pictures above tell a big part of the story, but this is a very big deal that has been under-reported, so thanks to Christopher Flavelle of the Times for putting this together.

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