Climate change and a population boom could dry up the Great Salt Lake in 5 years Utah leaders are under pressure to end water diversions and enforce tougher restrictions in order save the drying Great Salt Lake. A recent report predicted it will completely dry in five years.

Climate change and a population boom could dry up the Great Salt Lake in 5 years

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A popular 19th-century book describes the Great Salt Lake. In the 1840s, that lake was well known to local people, but not on the East Coast. The Western mapmaker John Charles Fremont described boating on the lake to an island. He accidentally left the cover to a spyglass on that island and mused that some future explorer might find it. Unless something changes, future explorers of that island may be able to walk there because the lake is drying up. A report says climate change and population growth in Utah may destroy it in five years. NPR's Kirk Siegler takes us there.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The Great Salt Lake is the largest remaining saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere.


SIEGLER: Now, trekking along its receding shoreline, especially if it's the dead of winter, can feel eerie and lonely.

CARLY BIEDUL: These might even be my footprints from last week.

SIEGLER: Carly Biedul is a biologist with the Great Salt Lake Institute. She's bundled up in an orange, puffy jacket, gloves and hat. And most importantly, she's wearing thick, sturdy rubber boots. The mud with the frozen, slick layer of ice on top - it's treacherous.


SIEGLER: Well, the only thing we're not really prepared for is the stench.

This is pungent right here.

BIEDUL: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIEGLER: Smells like dead fish almost.

The stink is a sign of a biologically healthy saline lake.

BIEDUL: People have been saying that they miss the lake stink because it just makes them feel like home, and it's just not here anymore. So you're lucky that it gets to smell so bad.

SIEGLER: It doesn't really stink anymore because it's drying and dying. Biedul hikes out here weekly, trying to collect samples of brine fly larva, which are getting harder and harder to find.

BIEDUL: I'm going to get my jar out.

SIEGLER: Brine flies are at the bottom of the food chain, feed for the brine shrimp, which sustain the migrating birds and so on. Most of the water that's left here is too salty now.

BIEDUL: The threshold is - we're kind of at the threshold. So if things get any saltier, we're super, super worried.

SIEGLER: So what brought us to this brink? Two decades of a Western megadrought and water diversions from rivers upstream for farms and suburbs.

BIEDUL: Yeah, sorry. This is our crossing point.

SIEGLER: Now, if this lake goes away, just the economic fallout alone is dizzying, from brine shrimp fishing to mining to Utah's ski resorts that benefit from extra lake effect snow. And then there's the pollution.

BIEDUL: The inversions here in the winter that we get just from being in the valley is already a big problem. And so having this other piece of the dust coming in really scares people.

SIEGLER: Partly because of those inversions, Salt Lake City already can have some of the dirtiest air in the U.S.


SIEGLER: And the lakebed has high concentrations of mercury and arsenic.

TURNER BITTON: If the lake bed dries up and we're having winds blowing dust storms into our neighborhood, the heavy metals are going to land right on top of this neighborhood.

SIEGLER: Turner Bitton is a community activist in Salt Lake City's West Valley. These more working-class neighborhoods are already hemmed in by busy freeways, an international airport and Utah's largest oil refinery.

BITTON: I mean, we're talking about something that could potentially make these neighborhoods - I don't want to say uninhabitable - but for those that are vulnerable, for those that have lung issues, uninhabitable.

SIEGLER: He's not being dramatic. Researchers have found higher rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease in neighborhoods like these. And one University of Utah study even showed that students in schools here scored lower on tests during bad air days. Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. He says the state should've declared an emergency years ago.

BRIAN MOENCH: A lot of people think that dust is pretty benign because it's, quote, "natural." Well, that's not the case. And in the case of dust from the Great Salt Lake, it is particularly toxic because we know that it's laced with high concentrations of heavy metals.

SIEGLER: And most of Utah's 3 million or so residents live just east of the lake along the Wasatch Mountains. The lake is about 9 feet lower than normal right now, and locals are already complaining of dust storms. The crisis is all over the mainstream news here.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And, you know, even with all of this snow, Utah still remains in a drought.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Now to what some tonight are calling a looming environmental nuclear bomb in Utah. The mighty Great Salt Lake is drying up. And as...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: As the Great Salt Lake...

SIEGLER: At the state Capitol, lawmakers this session are under pressure to save the lake. Some ideas floated sound like sci-fi - cloud seeding, even a pipeline to pump Pacific Ocean water in. Right now, lawmakers are debating a half-billion-dollar package that would do things like pay farmers in cities to use less water. Here's Republican Governor Spencer Cox in his recent State of the State address.


SPENCER COX: Earlier this month, a report predicted that in just five short years, the Great Salt Lake will completely disappear. Let me be absolutely clear. We are not going to let that happen.

SIEGLER: Now, from up here on Capitol Hill, there's a sweeping view of the Salt Lake City skyline. And when you look to the west, past the airport, there's the receding gray lake shimmering at dusk. It's an ominous sight but hard for lawmakers to ignore.


BIEDUL: We can see the reflection of the of the mountains on the water. It's really pretty right now.

SIEGLER: Now, for her part, down at the lake, biologist Carly Biedul is keeping positive.

BIEDUL: And that's kind of what we've been trying to do - is find these moments to see the beauty when it's so sad.

SIEGLER: Sad because Biedul says there's very little time left to save this lake.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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