E. Thomas Nelson: The immediate financial impacts of a shriveled-up Great Salt Lake

(Bryan Tarnowski/The New York Times) The town of Keeler, Calif., alongside the dry Owens Lake, March 20, 2022. The town, once a thriving community on the shore of Owens Lake, emptied out after the lake disappeared. Only about 50 residents remain.

As a native of Salt Lake City, when friends or acquaintances come in town to visit, I almost always field the inevitable question about the Great Salt Lake. I have found that often, those unfamiliar with our valley assume the GSL to be some urban and recreational oasis and are disappointed to learn that, from a human perspective, the most enjoyable activities include hiking, birdwatching and spotting the occasional bison.

But it turns out that the Great Salt Lake is far more important to humans than most of us realized. A recent New York Times article highlights the dire situation of shrinking water levels in the GSL, with one consequence being toxic dust storms that would threaten the livelihood and health of our entire Wasatch Valley.

This harkens back to lessons that should have been learned years ago with California’s Owens Lake. As the population of Los Angeles rapidly grew in the early 1900s, the decision was made to syphon water from nearby Owens Lake. Once dried up, this resulted in toxic dust storms, a mass migration of nearby residents and an ongoing financial nightmare for the state of California that continues to this day. Owens Lake is now the largest source of toxic dust pollution in the United States.

But if history has taught us anything, it’s that money talks, and until people are faced with something head-on, some politicians will drag their feet and avoid the science as much as possible in order to stay in office.

Consider the inland port, which we know will have devastating health consequences for generations, but which was hastily pushed through by a handful of lawmakers, resulting in the ultra rich getting ultra richer and the rest of us getting much less healthy.

Consider efforts to push through the Parley’s Canyon mine, a head-scratching idea that will again benefit an elite few while harming the whole.

The list goes on and on. The health and well-being of the citizens of the Wasatch Valley often take a second fiddle to money and local politics. If you can push the science off as fake news, avoid and defer, future generations can deal with the consequences while current politicians and the ultra wealthy let the good times roll.

Those concerned about their enormous financial portfolios or their political power might consider the very immediate and real consequences of the Great Salt Lake drying up. Very soon our tourism industry will likely shrivel up also, as the inevitable snow pack decline will get far worse and the greatest snow on earth will be no more. People might start moving out of, and stop vacationing and recreating in, Salt Lake City if we are periodically under the haze of toxic dusts full of arsenic, copper and zirconium.

Lawmakers and giant industry might not worry much about brine shrimp and migratory birds, but they might start to worry when people stop moving here or visiting here.

Unlike climate change, which will destroy future generations, the Great Salt Lake drying up could potentially start to destroy this current generation. Perhaps the time to consider ways to decrease global warming, decrease Wasatch Valley pollution levels and increase water conservation is now.

With regards to that last idea, water conservation, note that 85% of our water is used on agriculture. It is a fact that we need farms, it is a fact that farmers feed America, and not only are we lucky to have farms and farmers, we as a society would not survive without them.

However, how much of this water is being used on non-consumable crops like alfalfa to feed cows? As of 2015, an article from KSL claims: “most of Utah’s water is used to grow alfalfa hay — which consumes relatively high amounts of water — and much of the hay is sold to China to feed dairy cows.”

Might it be time to change what’s being grown and use less agricultural water? Or alter our diets? How much of that farming water is wasted on in efficient systems? Is it time to upgrade our farming technology?

Normally I’d say there’s no chance of any of any positive change happening. The status quo is to say it’s a beautiful June day, I don’t see any toxic dust, ergo everything is fine and we should keep doing what we’re doing. However, considering the very immediate financial impacts of a shriveled up lake, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope this time.

But let’s not hold our breath. On the other hand, maybe we should, as a means of preparing for the waves of toxic dust headed our way.

E. Thomas Nelson

E. Thomas Nelson is an emergency physician in Salt Lake City and a board member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.