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Brad Wilson: We must act now to save the Great Salt Lake

A shrinking lake threatens Utah’s economy and our public health.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bird decomposes along the shores of the Great Salt Lake near Saltair on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2021, as persisting drought conditions continue to drop the lake levels to historic lows.

On July 14, 1877, The Salt Lake Herald published the chilling account of two night workers at the Barnes & Co. Salt Boiler, who heard strange noises proceeding from the Great Salt Lake and when they went to investigate, saw “a huge mass of hide and fin rapidly approaching” causing them both to run for their lives. They later described what they saw as a 75-foot long alligator-like creature with a head like a horse.

It’s hard to imagine there could be a Great Salt Lake story more alarming than that of the Great Salt Lake Monster, but in fact, Utah’s future without the lake could prove scarier — and much more real.

Many of us do not give much thought to the Great Salt Lake. In our minds it has always been there and always will be. Unfortunately, the ongoing drought and record-low water levels represent a real crisis which demands our attention. While I understood the shrinking lake was a problem, I only recently came to realize just how dire the situation could become and how drastically it could impact life for all Utahns if we don’t act now to save the Great Salt Lake.

Economic Concerns

The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council estimates the lake contributes roughly $1.5 billion annually to Utah’s economy, much of that driven by strategic mineral extraction from its waters. The lake is a rich repository of lithium, titanium, magnesium and potash — essential elements in the production of everything from medical devices to rechargeable batteries and crop fertilizer. Nearly 7,000 local jobs are directly reliant upon the economic power of the lake, with thousands more reaping the indirect benefits from this economic activity. With diminishing lake levels, the future for these employers looks increasingly grim.

If the Great Salt Lake continues to recede, estimates show a drying lake could cost the state more than $32 billion over the next 20 years as we struggle to deal with the ramifications of the resulting disaster. It is clear to me that the proverbial “ounce of prevention” is exactly what our lake needs.

Health Concerns

With more exposed lakebed, prevalent dust storms will exacerbate our air quality challenges. Prevailing winds from the West will blow dust laden with potentially hazardous concentrations of arsenic, lithium and zirconium directly into Davis and Weber counties and across the entire Wasatch Front.

We have seen this scenario play out in other areas of the country. Following poor policy decisions in California, Owens Lake was basically drained to feed the water needs of Los Angeles. Citizens in towns surrounding the lake began experiencing the worst dust pollution in the United States and facing significant respiratory and other health problems. With our unique mountain geography and annual winter inversions, we cannot afford to add clouds of toxic particulates to our air. Utah lawmakers need to learn from the mismanagement of Owens Lake to ensure such policy failures do not happen under our watch.

Quality of Life Concerns

Not only will everyday Utahns feel the economic and health effects of a shrinking Great Salt Lake, but such a change will have a drastic impact on the high quality of life we enjoy. According to the most recent data, we could expect a significant decline in lake-effect snow putting at risk our claim to the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” The reduction in overall snowpack would be around 27 inches to 45 inches annually, shortening the ski season by up to seven weeks. Resorts alone would lose around $10 million dollars in revenue each year, to say nothing of the larger economic impact.

Too often we think of the Great Salt Lake as a “dead” lake, and it is easy to understand why. The high salinity prevents any traditional agricultural or residential use of the lake — and makes for a less-than-ideal recreation destination. But all Utahns should recognize the importance of the Great Salt Lake to our health, economy, quality of life and identity as a state.

On January 5, 2022, I will host the first ever Great Salt Lake Summit to bring attention to this looming economic and environmental catastrophe — and to discuss actionable policies we can implement during the legislative session to ensure our quality of life remains second to none. It is our responsibility to manage Utah’s water, lands and other natural resources effectively. Throughout my continued time in public service, this endeavor will remain a priority.

Working with researchers, environmental advocates, and industry leaders, we can bring our best thinking to the table to ensure future generations will enjoy the indispensable benefits of the Great Salt Lake — leaving only the occasional horse-headed monster to fear.

Brad Wilson | Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives

Brad Wilson is the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. He represents District 15 in Davis County.

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