As Great Salt Lake shrivels and Salt Lake Valley’s population swells, state regulators reveal what worries them most

‘Air quality and the Great Salt Lake levels are very tightly coupled,’ one scientist warns.

Utah has made strides in cleaning up its polluted air, but climate change could blow up that progress.

One need only look at the drying Great Salt Lake to see a ticking time bomb — as its lakebed gets exposed and desiccated, it could turn into a toxic source of pollution in the form of blowing dust.

“We’re really concerned about the Great Salt Lake and the impacts that we’re seeing due to historic drought, but also clearly the impacts due to a shifting climate and all of the variables that we simply can’t control as humans or policymakers,” said Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, who hosted a town hall about the lake and air quality this week. He said he has been “inundated” with calls from concerned constituents.

The lake hit a record low elevation in July, and with an intense drought gripping nearly all of the state, there is little relief in sight.

Last year, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council released a report with 12 strategies to increase the amount of water reaching the lake. Some include efforts that are already underway, like metering untreated secondary water and incentives for more efficient irrigation. Others require rethinking longstanding water laws, such as recognizing a right to conserve water and finding a way to make sure that conserved water makes it way to the lake.

“I like to think of the Great Salt Lake as a wicked problem where there is no one solution,” said Laura Vernon, who works as the Great Salt Lake coordinator in a new role created by the Legislature. “The solution isn’t cheap. And [if] you solve one problem somewhere, then it creates another problem somewhere else.”

The Great Salt Lake desperately needs water, state regulators noted during the town hall, but there is no easy way to get it. A 2016 study conducted by the Division of Water Resources, Utah State University and others found the lake’s elevation would be 11 feet higher today if humans didn’t divert water from its tributaries, like the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers. Water rights lay claim to every drop in the state, and there is little incentive for the people holding those rights to let them keep flowing downstream, especially as persistent drought drains the state’s reservoirs.

Press “play” on the timelapse to see how the Great Salt Lake has shrunk in recent decades, exposing a large area of dry lakebed.

“We are one of the driest states in the nation,” said Candice Hasenyager, director of Water Resources, “... [and] yes, we use a lot of water and we can do better.

Meanwhile, population growth along the Wasatch Front is booming, but it sits in a constrained airshed. The region’s unique geography already makes it prone to winter inversion pollution and unhealthy summertime ozone. But state regulators are also keeping an eye on pollution from lakebed dust, which could further impact quality of life in the region.

“We’ve seen examples ... within our own state,” said Bryce Bird, director of the Division of Air Quality, “[where] some dry lake beds in the west desert have been responsible for dust impacting Salt Lake Valley from wind.”

A 2019 study from Brigham Young University found that nearly all of northern Utah’s urban dust comes from dry lake beds. Dust not only makes it harder to breathe, it causes snowpack to melt faster and has detrimental effects on soils.

And in an earlier BYU study, researchers found most of the dust in Ogden and Logan had blown in from Sevier Dry Lake, hundreds of miles away in Millard County. That means the consequences of a dry Great Salt Lake could be far-reaching.

“Air quality and the Great Salt Lake levels are very tightly coupled,” said Kerry Kelly, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah and a member of the state’s Air Quality Policy Board. “And there are metals in some areas of the Great Salt Lake that are of concern. Arsenic is one of them.”

A reason for optimism is that Utah has made strides in improving its air quality, due in large part to stiffer pollution standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Valley residents don’t use coal to heat their homes anymore. Cars and industry have improved technology to reduce emissions.

“The levels of air pollution in the ‘50s were much higher than they are today,” Bird said. “And ... we’ve been able to accommodate growth both in industry and commercial activity and, of course, in population.”

But climate change and other environmental concerns could hamper the state’s air quality efforts. Along with a shrinking Great Salt Lake, widespread drought is making Western forests to go up in flames. This summer, wildfire smoke caused Salt Lake County to exceed federal health standards for daily particulate pollution 16 times, Bird said.

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) Looking east from downtown Salt Lake City, air pollution, much of it from wildfire smoke, obscures a view of the Wasatch Mountains on Aug. 6, 2018.

“Unfortunately, what we’re hearing is, absent some other forest management to reduce the fuel load, wildfires at these levels ... are going to be the future,” Bird said. “That is the natural forest burning cycle.”

But invisible ozone remains Utah’s biggest summertime air quality challenge — Salt Lake County had 39 days that exceeded federal standards for that pollutant.

The main drivers of ozone pollution are hot days and car emissions, and models show that as the Salt Lake Valley grows beyond city centers, the amount of vehicle miles traveled will increase at double the rate of population, Bird said.

“If we don’t find new technologies and adopt new practices,” he added, “the kind of [air quality] controls that are already in place will be overwhelmed by growth within about the next 12 to 15 years.”

Future pollution sources will likely hit the west side hardest, Kelly said, as it already tends to have worse air quality than the east side. Planned developments like the inland port could exacerbate the problem.

“There are other ports around the nation and a lot of them have clean air action plans,” Kelly said. “... If we are not leading in terms of the port and clean air, we will be following.”

While a shriveling Great Salt Lake is almost certain to further impact Utah’s airshed, there is more at stake than just pollution, state scientists noted.

About 5% to 7% of the Wasatch’s famous snow comes from lake effect storms. Great Salt Lake generates 7,000 jobs and $1.3 billion each year through mineral harvesting, brine shrimp aquaculture, tourism and other lake-based industries. A 2019 Great Salt Lake Advisory Council report forecasts more than $2 billion in annual economic costs and losses if the lake keeps drying.

“There’s no silver bullet that’s going to fix the issues associated with the Great Salt Lake,” Hasenyager said. “And that keeps me up at night.”