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2021′s Utahn of the Year: This pick should be the Utahn of every year

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking and now 10 feet below what has long been considered normal. It is time to act, to save our namesake geographic feature.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake as seen near the Spiral Jetty, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. It is time to act, to save our namesake geographic feature.

Actually, it should probably be the Utahn of every year. Of the millennium.

But, in the spirit of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s (almost) gone,” it is essential that all Utahns sit up and take notice of the geographical feature that has given its name to our capital city.

That’s why the Great Salt Lake is the Salt Lake Tribune’s 2021 Utahn of the Year.

Drought and increasing diversions of water from upstream have left the Great Salt Lake less great. And odds are it will get only smaller if nothing changes.

It is smaller and shallower than it has been in the time since European settlers first started keeping records. While maps show the lake’s water covering nearly 1,500 square miles, this summer it shrank to 937 square miles. It’s enough of a difference that The Salt Lake Tribune and its partners at AccuWeather have changed the maps used to depict the size and shape of the lake.

Its level is 10 feet below what has long been considered normal.

Antelope Island is not really an island any more.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake as seen near the Spiral Jetty, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. Persistent drought has reduced lake levels to historic lows as the shoreline continues to recede.

The ripple effect these changes will have are serious and will affect everyone who lives along the densely populated Wasatch Front, even if they never go out to see the lake themselves.

Experts figure that a continued shrinking of the lake will cost the regional economy more than $2 billion a year if trends continue. Today, the lake supports some 7,000 jobs in mineral extraction, brine shrimp harvesting and tourism. A smaller pool will also mean less lake-effect snow in the canyons above the city which, combined with the ongoing drought caused by climate change, can only harm the ski industry that means so much locally.

What’s worse is the fact that, as the lake continues to recede, the exposed lake bed will give up tons of heavy metals and other toxins that had been sequestered there to the winds that move from the west to the heavily populated communities to the east. In a community where air quality is already among the world’s worst, such added pollution is the last thing we need.

On a larger scale, the decline of the lake and its associated wetlands threatens the survival of millions of migrating birds, a disruption to the larger ecosystem that cannot be fully predicted.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pelican decomposes at the Great Salt Lake. The receding shoreline exposes breeding grounds for pelicans, making them reachable by predators.

The good news is that some people in positions of influence have started to notice.

Gov. Spencer Cox rolled out his proposed budget in a news conference on Antelope Island, a budget that includes $45 million for Great Salt Lake research and support.

U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Blake Moore are among those sponsoring federal legislation that would pitch $25 million toward studying the state of the Great Salt Lake and other similarly shrinking bodies of water in the West.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Kaysville Republican who rightly considers the Great Salt Lake among his constituents, is convening a summit of experts and stakeholders on Jan. 5.

All this talking, spending and studying are necessary. But it will not be enough. It is time for some action.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox included $45 million for Great Salt Lake research and support in his 2022 budget proposal.

Utahns who live and farm along all the rivers and streams that feed the Great Salt Lake, and the governments that represent them, have a duty to cut back on their water use. Those who provide water to homes and businesses must price those gallons so that everyone has an immediate economic incentive to use less.

We know it could get worse. Similar bodies of water in California, Iran and Kazakhstan have dried up.

And do not forget that, even at its greatest, the Great Salt Lake is a mere remnant of what we now call Lake Bonneville, which, 25,000 years ago, covered some 20,000 square miles in parts of what are now Utah, Nevada and Idaho.

So, yes, even the largest lakes can go away. It is time for us to do what we can, what we must, to ensure the Great Salt Lake survives.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A chair is left behind on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake as seen near Saltair, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Persistent drought has reduced lake levels to historic lows as the shoreline continues to recede.

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