This article is published by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to educate people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to help make a difference before it’s too late. Read all of our stories below greatsaltlakenews.org.
The People’s Great Salt Lake Summit, held at Salt Lake City Community College’s Miller campus in Sandy, welcomed over 200 people on a sunny summer Saturday to discuss the Great Salt Lake issues.
The summit was hosted by local organizations including Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Save Our Great Salt Lake and the Utah Rivers Council, among others. Doctors, Indigenous leaders and local professors explained the effects of the lake’s shrinking – and all agreed that even though the snowy winter gave the state a much-needed respite, Utah residents must continue to fight to protect the body of water.
Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute and biology professor at Westminster University, updated attendees on the lake’s summer status – which some have exaggerated, she said.
The south arm of the lake — separated from the north arm of the lake by a makeshift levee at the railroad embankment — has a more vibrant ecosystem with lower salinity because that’s where rivers enter the lake, Baxter said. The dam was raised to protect the south arm of the lake, and as the lake has now received more inflow from historical snow cover, water spills over this dam into the north arm of the lake.
The ideal elevation of the lake is 4,200 feet, Baxter said. Recent measurements show that the lake’s south arm rose to 4,194 feet from about 4,189 feet last October — however, the lake’s north arm rose only about a foot and was measured at about 4,190 feet earlier this month, according to a recent study by Utah State University.
That brings the lake’s total rise to about 3.6 feet — which will shrink to about 1.2 feet by fall due to summer evaporation, Baxter said.
“The future is unlikely to bring us conditions that conserve water in the natural system,” Baxter said. “In the end, we could have a lead this year. We must be 11 feet tall – will we experience 11 winters in a row like this? Absolutely not.”
And with temperatures expected to rise in the coming years, the Wasatch Front is also likely to experience more rain and less snow — which doesn’t charge the water bodies and snowpack as well, Baxter said.
“We have to keep the pressure up,” Baxter said. “We need to enhance water, not financially, but through a system of love and appreciation of water. We have to deal with the consumptive uses, that’s for sure.”
Impact and Solutions
One of the biggest impacts of the shrinking Great Salt Lake is air pollution and its impact on public health. In Utah, air pollution comes from multiple sources: ozone, wildfires, dust storms, and inversions, said Dr. Brian Moench, executive chairman of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Utah’s winter inversions concentrate particulate matter when warmer air at higher elevations forms a “cap” that traps colder air and pollutants. And as temperatures rise due to climate change, so have ozone levels and wildfires, Moench said.
“Now we’re seeing dust storms,” Moench said. “About 15 years ago we didn’t actually have dust storms from the Great Salt Lake, but now we have about 15 a year. And that’s what’s really worrying us about what’s going to happen to the Great Salt Lake.”
These dust storms can carry harmful substances like particulate matter, heavy metals, radioactive isotopes and microorganisms — which can cause diseases like meningitis, Moench said.
“Even if you don’t have any symptoms, your health is compromised,” Moench said. “The average person loses about two years of their life expectancy from this exposure to air pollution. On the Wasatch front it’s probably that, maybe even three.”
And those issues will hit people disproportionately, said Luis Miranda, organizer for racial and climate justice. Areas closer to the Great Salt Lake — on the west side of the valley, such as Rose Park, West Valley City and Magna — will be the first to bear the brunt of the lake’s shrinkage, he said.
“Climate change means casualty zones, casualty zones mean throwaway people, and to us, throwaway people mean racism,” Miranda said. “In those areas, we have Rocky Mountain Power’s Gadsby power plant, the refineries, we have an international airport, we have the other private airports, we have all the traffic that goes through an industrial area, we have US magnesium.” . Victim zones are those zones where we decided it’s okay to move on and pollute and get off balance.”
The choice of these sacrificial zones was rooted in white supremacy, Miranda said. Therefore, it is crucial to involve Black and Indigenous peoples in the stewardship of the Great Salt Lake to find solutions to its environmental problems.
“We talked about all these important issues that happen in the valley. But I don’t think the voices of those directly affected by the Great Salt Lake are often spoken about,” Miranda said. “Justice is really not just coming to terms with nature, but also coming to terms with the process. We need to involve those affected and stop making decisions for others.”
Miranda said that involvement in related issues — like redlining, unaffordable housing and racial justice — needed to be analyzed to empower others to get involved in saving the waters.
“When we understand it that way, it changes the possibilities of who we organize and how we organize,” Miranda said. “Giving the people who are most affected a dignified life seems important and if we don’t include them in the solutions, honestly we won’t have the long-term solutions that we need.”