Janice H. Gardner: The day I learned Great Salt Lake is dying

People find it hard to grasp the slow-moving catastrophe of a disappearing GSL.

Janice Gardner at Great Salt Lake

On October 22, 2022, it was another mundane, quarterly gathering of technical experts and brine shrimp harvesters reporting data on Great Salt Lake. Yet, in the middle of the meeting, I found myself — a biologist who has worked with the lake for 15 years — escaping from the conference room to cry in the bathroom.

For the first time in recorded history, our Great Salt Lake was now too salty for brine shrimp to thrive. My peers stated that the timeline was already set in motion, and these tiny beings would cease reproduction in a few more seasons. I searched the room for others sharing my alarm, but there was no reaction.

One of Great Salt Lake’s foremost and trusted experts rose her hand, solemnly asked for the statements to be repeated, and clicked notes into a laptop. Silence. A brine shrimp harvester, in a tone empty of humor, whispered to his neighbor a quip about his expedited retirement.

I often wonder why we did not take action years ago to avoid the collapse of our Great Salt Lake. For decades fine organizations like Friends of Great Salt Lake and leaders such as Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, Joel Ferry and Tim Hawkes have worked tirelessly to provide solutions, but with little support.

It turns out our brains evolved in such a way that it’s nearly impossible for us to take meaningful action on slow-moving threats like climate change or a drying saline lake. We humans also tend to be optimistic about our future. Despite all the information of the environmental crisis looming over our heads, we still hope.

I, too, have been one of the hopeful ones. Despite everything I know about Great Salt Lake’s woes, I hoped our lake would be OK. How could billions of brine shrimp and brine flies really blink out? How can an entire waterbody the size of Delaware go dry? How can Utah be the reason for the starvation of entire populations of birds, winged creatures traveling all the way from Argentina, Mexico and elsewhere?

I feel the grief over our hurting Great Salt Lake. We’re breathing in that dusty, polluted air, and wildlife are meeting their demise in our backyard. It’s bad, and it can get worse.

Yet, my hope remains that many share my deep admiration for our Great Salt Lake. A love for her bird migration, on par with the great animal movements across Africa’s Serengeti. A love for floating in her clear, warm waters, with orange brine shrimp fluttering around. A love for my community of bird watchers, duck hunters, boaters, sunset watchers and brine shrimp harvesters, all sharing in the lake’s abundance.

Now’s the time we share our collective alarm to help our lake. The future of Great Salt Lake literally hinges on outcomes of the current Utah legislative session. Speak up for our lake by emailing and calling your state senators and representatives and tell them you support measures and the funding that get water into our Great Salt Lake. This includes HB286, Great Salt Lake Funding Modifications, HB272, Water Efficient Landscaping Amendments, and other bills that were introduced during the past “Water Week” on the Hill.

I, along with millions of people and birds that rely on Great Salt Lake, hope you will speak up.

Janice Gardner

Janice Gardner is a certified wildlife biologist at Sageland Collaborative, a non-profit science-based wildlife conservation organization based in Salt Lake City. She is a past board member of Friends of Great Salt Lake and of Great Salt Lake Audubon.