John Dreyfous: One record water year and short-term solutions will not save the Great Salt Lake, but long-term commitments could

What we need is a cure, not merely the subsiding of the lake’s most obvious symptoms.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The shore of the Great Salt Lake at Stansbury Island on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Returning home, I feel my roots, strengthened by five generations before me, dig deep into the land we have all called home. Without the looming pressure of a return to school in the East, having just graduated from Middlebury College, I am soothed by my first sight of the Uinta Mountains, still battered in the snow of last winter.

The weight of “the real world” simultaneously grows and subsides as I toil with the future. A future full of exploration, growth, difficulty and desire to give back to my home through it all. Exiting Parley’s Canyon to be truly home for the first time in years, the valley is unfamiliarly rich and green with life. Water has returned.

As I waited impatiently watching gray clouds over Vermont’s Green Mountains, storms in my western homelands — stuck in the valleys of 12,000-foot peaks — slowly produced the lifeline for the desert below. Feet of snow buried the Uinta mountains and waited for the spring thaw.

This year, the runoff filled with a seldom seen sense of rage and power, fueled by unprecedented snowfall. It sought the freedom of countless streams meandering through meadows and tumbling violently down steep granite canyons.

As always, much of this water comes together to form the Weber, Jordan and Bear River. But, unlike most of the waters west of the continental divide, it never reaches the Colorado River, let alone the Gulf of California. It slowly makes its way from glacier cut canyons to dug out reservoirs, reaching the bottom and continuing downstream. It lurches forward through canals and ditches, lakes and back eddies, sprinklers and toilets, until reaching its final destination. There is no more downstream. So, the water waits, to be lifted into the air, frozen, and begin its freefall once again. Home for now: The Great Salt Lake.

With newly found water on the lake, a symphony erupts as the sun rises over the Wasatch Mountains, performing its final score as it cascades behind the Oquirrhs. I have heard this song all my life. It is always similar but never the same, changing with each visit I make to the lake with my father. Thousands of waterfowl, long-billed curlews, avocets, phalaropes, terns and white pelicans flock here, harmonizing in tune with the conductor sun. Calling with fervor in search of a mate and seeking refuge to rear their young along the lake’s salted shores. Small brine shrimp like vesicles of an orange dance freely throughout the shallows of this inland sea, nourishing the birds so they may flourish and sing.

Flats of salt extend miles beyond the lake’s shores glowing an incandescent white under the sun’s rays. After each rain, the flats reflect the arid world with immaculate precision. A herd of bison roam Antelope Island, the lake’s largest island. As the days warm, thick clouds of brine flies murmur like starlings, and the stiff smell of sulfur radiates off the mineral-rich lake.

Utah no longer marks the edge of the New Frontier. This land is not alone. The lake links us to communities worldwide. Farmers in the watershed upstream, many struggling in the age of urbanization, export alfalfa to consumers in Saudi Arabia and China. Marshlands in Argentina provide winter homes for migrating waterfowl and factories across Asia turn magnesium from the lake into parts for computers, phones and cars. Morton Salt mined from the lake’s shore gets sprinkled onto culinary dishes around the world. Brine shrimp, spotted by planes and scooped by barges with massive nets, are processed, packaged and fed to farmed fish that may end up back on these plates.

Sails once again dot the lake, providing flashes of color against an opaque background. Tire tracks scathe the salt flats, setting land speed records on the frictionless surface. Hunters sit eagerly in cold reeds, waiting for an unsuspecting gadwall to descend from the skies with whistling wings. Millennials and Gen Z search for retired aquamarine canals dug by Mag Corp, to plunge for a photo in the mineral ridden waters.

What used to be the heart of recreation, garnering thousands of visitors each year to float and laugh in the buoyant, salty water, gets brushed aside. Condemned by locals as if a capital city were not named in its honor.

Only recently have Great Salt Lake’s anguished cries begun to be heard. And even then, only few are willing to listen. Consortiums of the state’s experts tell us we have five years to act, seven at most. Despite record snows, drought rages on, water demand continues to rise with our growing population and decades of overconsumption outweigh one unprecedented year. 

Despite its recent rise, a faint memory remains of the lake whose shores sat many feet higher before white settlers arrived. This lake is full of fluctuation, as its shallow bed allows water to evaporate rapidly. In a mere 35 years, less than half the life of the average man, the lake reached its historic peak of 4211.65 feet and shriveled to its all-time low of 4188.50 feet in November 2022.

As a record snow year melts into the expanding Wasatch Front, we are quick to believe that our prayers for water have been heard, pushing us dangerously towards inaction. We witness the volume of life and the power of water brought with each acre-foot draining into the valley. The sound of white-faced ibis rookeries and the probing chatter of black-necked stilts soothe us into a misconstrued reality. This surge of liquid-greening fallowed fields and creeping into forgotten wetlands is no more than chemo for a terminal sentence. What we need is a cure, not merely the subsiding of the lake’s most obvious symptoms. Behind the record snow lies decades of chronic consumption, poised to metastasize like cancer, taking Great Salt Lake along with it in a matter of years. Even so, this abundance of water has created an extended window of opportunity to collaborate and find the necessary cure.

It will take a village.

Without action, sailboats will soon once again be ripped from boat ramps as their keels congeal in the thick lake mud. More and more people will walk and drive on the expanding flats and dried shores. This will send fragile, crystallized earth — full of minerals accumulated over thousands of years — into already contaminated air.

Soon, a cloud will move swiftly with a northerly wind, engulfing the Salt Lake Valley in a deep, gray haze. But this is not the comforting, brooding front of a lake effect storm, bringing with it “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” Nor is it inversion with its viscous, gray smog that coagulates in the valley, or the all too familiar smoke from fires pillaging the West. Fine particulates will jump into the air lined with crude concentrations of arsenic and lead, moving with the intent of infesting the capillaries of millions.

The air in a landscape built to harbor smoke, already suffering from some of the worst pollution in the U.S., will be struck with waves of toxicity of intolerable proportions. It will attack silently but mercilessly. In the short-term, inhalation of these particles can cause immediate breathing difficulty and inflammation. In the long-term, increases in chronic illness, asthma, and decreases in life expectancy will mysteriously plague Salt Lake for generations to come. Residents will flee to their homes, children’s recess will be held inside and those without homes will have nowhere to hide.

As is often the case, the inactions of the few will weigh heavy on the many, and those with the least will suffer the most.

With the smell of victory thick from an unprecedented snow, rather than uplift the Great Salt Lake, it shrivels. Projects like the Bear River Development — poised to reduce an additional 20% of the water feeding the lake — surge forward. Politicians claim credit for the actions of a desperate, unstable Earth. Acres of recently emerged wetlands will once again disappear as drought pillages the water stores of struggling farmers. Farmers who are blamed for the lake’s peril, while being forced to grow alfalfa and raise cattle on land suited for sage brush and pronghorn. Farmers who can do nothing but consume, accounting for 75% of Utah’s water use, as they risk losing their livelihoods without any incentive to save water.

Without action, Great Salt Lake seems destined to be a relic in a museum of forgotten saline lakes. Alongside California’s Owens Lake or Iran’s Urmia or Russia’s Aral Sea whose consumers were similarly misguided by the allure of big water years.

The loss of Great Salt Lake will come with catastrophic implications for the millions of human and more than human lives residing in the Wasatch Front.

In a mere 23 years of life, I have watched sagebrush turn to bluegrass and foothills become mansions. I have seen the lights of the valley spread as the lights in the sky turn dim. But I do not blame the residents who keep their lawns green or even the farmers sending alfalfa across the world to make ends meet. I blame the ignorance of inaction. I blame the desire to address a drastic problem with moderate solutions. I blame our fear of collaboration and need for recognition when it will take countless silent efforts to incite change.

How can plans to increase upstream diversion stride forward, building reservoirs on top of towns and billions of taxpayer dollars? Will our lungs already be lined with lead when we decide it is time to act? Have we forgotten that this is a desert? Have we forgotten the snow will not always fall in such piles as it did this year?

We must fight for a minimum water level in the lake and simultaneously ensure the farmers and residents affected by this change are not left behind. We must fight to bring water to the lake by conserving before we dam more rivers or pipe sea water from California.

I left for college to learn how to support this land that fostered my understanding of the world and that of the five generations of Utahns that came before me. I return to Utah without the answers I wished to have found. And while I cannot claim to know the solution, I know one exists because belief drives action and action incites change. There is work to be done.

John Dreyfous is a fifth-generation Utahn and recently returned home after graduating Summa Cum Laude from Middlebury College with a degree in Conservation Biology. He grew up fly-fishing, camping, skiing, bird-watching, and hunting and recognizes the access to immense outdoors spaces as the ultimate privilege of living in Utah. John returned home to Utah from Vermont passionate about supporting the homelands that have nurtured and taught him all his life. When not recreating on Utah’s public lands, John can be found writing, watering his plants, or relaxing with his dog and girlfriend.