I recently took a field trip to Antelope Island so that I might see Great Salt Lake in her current state. It was a clear day that illuminated the landscape, and the broad expanses of shallow water reflected the sky and mountains with striking clarity. The present condition of the lake is also a reflection of how we are living in her basin.
With a team of scientists, I walked out to the water’s edge in Bridger Bay. It was quite a way to the open water from the historic waterline. As we approached the waterline, we passed bands of high-water marks. Along those lines were piles of brine fly cases deposited by wind-driven waves; after each wind event, the high-water mark was lower. Each breath of the lake is getting shallower.
Among the things at stake with the receding of the lake is the air we breathe. The mountains and valleys that make the Wasatch Front so livable also create the conditions for air pollution. Our emissions concentrate in the cold pool of air created by winter inversions. In the summer, smoke from wildfires settles in the valley for days. As the lake recedes, the lakebed is exposed to the atmosphere, and the fine sediments destabilize and become airborne. These leave us with no season of persistently healthy air.
Models reveal that in our time of increasing aridification, there is enough runoff for the lake to be 11 feet deeper. It is necessary that we divert much of that runoff for our neighborhoods, farms, businesses and for other uses that contribute to our prosperity. Great Salt Lake does not need to be 11 feet deeper to be healthy, but she needs to be deeper than she is today for her systems to be sustainable.
We can see the consequences of a diminished Great Salt Lake: Our water samples measured 18% salinity, much higher than we expected in a part of the lake that receives fresh water from its major tributaries. Many of the brine shrimp in the area were bright red, a color that indicates stress. A white band of shore was visible to the north, though the historic shoreline of Bear River Bay was beyond the visible horizon.
In the shallow basin, any gain in depth covers large areas of lake bed with water that will prevent the formation of dust. Conversely, further loss of water exposes that much more lake bed. Warm, cold, wet or dry, water from the lake will evaporate. What evaporation leaves behind is up to us.
We can continue as we are, or we can choose to allow more water to flow to the lake. We can conserve water in our neighborhoods, farms and businesses. We can support legislative action to conserve water and discourage future diversions like the proposed Bear River development.
We’re experiencing the consequences of our own too-much. Each diversion from the lake benefits a home, a farm or an industry, but our collective diversion can diminish quality of life for each of us. What is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bee.
Our water infrastructure is the result of compromise and cooperation. The dams and diversions of the West are some of the engineering marvels of the world. We were capable of building Hoover Dam during the Great Depression, and we were capable of making the desert bloom with crops and gardens.
If we could accomplish those things, then we are capable of diverting a little less water and leaving enough for the lake. We will breathe more easily when we do.
Robert Wilson, Salt Lake City, is an educator, wildlife biologist and lifelong observer of the Great Salt Lake.