If you’ve lived along the Wasatch Front for long, you might remember a time when people didn’t care about the Great Salt Lake. When I was a kid in the 90s, most suburbanites even had a sense of disdain for it. It was the smell, mostly.
Back then, it didn’t really matter. The lake would always be there. An annoyance or a novelty. A namesake that we never thought much about. Or so we thought.
With the ecological collapse of the Great Salt Lake reportedly underway, a decades-long drought dominating the U.S. West and an ever-growing population along the Wasatch Front putting a strain on water resources, there are still far too many Utahns who have yet to recognize the significance of what’s happening. So maybe framing the disappearance of the lake in a more personal way might open a few more eyes.
What if the lake isn’t the only thing drying up, but also the equity in your home, your retirement and a viable future for your children?
I know that sounds extreme. Home prices have skyrocketed along the Wasatch Front. Utah is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, with one of the strongest economies to boot. New tech is creating jobs. All signs point to growth.
But just as a lake can disappear before our eyes without many of us noticing, so can the economy plummet at the turn of an ecological disaster. The environmental consequences of the Great Salt Lake drying up have been well documented. If our lake endures the same fate as other saline lakes around the world, lakes that also dried up due to water diversions, damming and large-scale agriculture, every homeowner along the Wasatch Front will be wishing they had bought property in California instead.
I recently overheard a colleague saying they couldn’t bring themselves to give up their lawn for “rocks.” Let’s set aside the fact that there are hundreds of native plants that can make your yard a wonderland. I can’t help but wonder if this person’s grass would be so cherished if they knew their $500,000 home would be worth $80,000 in 20 years. Because that’s what could happen if the Great Salt Lake disappears.
Xeriscaped yards alone aren’t going to save the Great Salt Lake. The biggest use of water in our state is industrial agriculture. That’s just a fact. If we’re going to save the lake, we’ll need our representatives across federal, state and local governments to negotiate with agricultural water users to guarantee flows.
But they may be less motivated to do so unless homeowners, renters, students, community members - anyone with a breath from Logan to Santaquin - understands the personal impact the lake has on our future.
To be frank, your grass will be the least of your worries unless something changes on both a personal and policy level.
And here’s the good news: Of all the saline lakes that have dried up around the world, ours is unique. None of those lakes sat in direct proximity to a population base as large as ours. When they dried up, it was to serve the growth, economy and wealth of populations that wouldn’t be impacted by the environmental consequences of their actions.
But we have an opportunity to do something that has never been done before. We’ll be the people who are directly impacted by the loss of the Great Salt Lake. We can save our own future by also saving the lake. Maybe some Utahns should view that opportunity through the eroding hole in the bottom of their piggy bank.
Tim Glenn is a museum professional and public lands advocate living in Salt Lake City.