During a two-decade drought, Utah’s Great Salt Lake sank to its lowest recorded level this month, a dismal milestone as academics and lawmakers warn of significant hazards to animals and people along its eroding shoreline.
Salt Lake City, an adjacent city, is already experiencing dust storms, which experts worry could worsen.
Water that would normally end up in the lake has been diverted for human use, industry, and agriculture for many years. Together with the current drought, which has been worsened by climate change, this has exposed an increasing amount of lakebed.
According to the US Geological Survey, the lake’s surface sank to its lowest level since records started in 1847 on July 3, at an average of 4,190 feet (1,277 meters) above sea level. It is predicted to sink further until the incoming water equals or surpasses evaporation in the autumn or early winter.
According to the USGS, the lake today holds less than one-fourth the amount of water that it did at its peak in 1987.
The lake’s surface area has shrunk by almost half compared to the historic average, exposing 800 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) of lakebed – an area greater than the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Previously submerged layers of earth have whirled into dust clouds laden with calcium, sulfur, and arsenic, a naturally occurring element linked to cancer and birth abnormalities. The exposed lakebed is also polluted with copper and silver mining waste.
“If you breathe that dust over an extended period of time, like decades or longer, then it can lead to increases in different types of cancer, like lung cancer, bladder cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and such,” Perry, of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, told Reuters on a recent morning on Farmington Bay.
Humans are not the only ones under risk. Underwater reef-like formations hold a microorganism that feeds brine shrimp, which in turn feeds birds, but when exposed, the structures dry up and become gray.
According to Max Malmquist of the National Audubon Society’s Saline Lakes Program, an estimated 10 million birds from more than 330 species travel through or dwell at the lake each year.
According to the Great Salt Lake Audubon, half of the North American continent’s ruddy ducks stage here, and half of its redheads nest here. 90% of the world’s eared grebe population congregates here to feed on brine shrimp.
The shrimp are also gathered in a multimillion-dollar brine business, which is part of a lake-generated economy worth up to $2 billion every year, according to authorities.
With public awareness and pressure to act mounting, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed 11 water conservation and policy proposals into law during the past legislative session. Longer-term solutions will need that the primary users – agriculture, industry, and towns – use less water and contribute more to the lake.
“As we hit these new record lows, we start to run the risk that those all of those values that we derive from the Great Salt Lake could be at risk,” said Utah State Representative Tim Hawkes. “And that’s what’s driving this political pressure to do something.”