Utah's Shrinking Great Salt Lake Could Be Headed for Ecological Disaster

Utah's shrinking Great Salt Lake could be headed for ecological disaster as water levels pass their lowest level in recorded history.

The Great Salt Lake's slow-motion shrinking doesn't just spell environmental disaster for millions of migrating birds, it would also cause billions of dollars in economical fallout. And there are health risks for humans, too.

"It has the potential for catastrophic disaster," said Republican Utah Rep. Doug Sagers about the potential impacts of the lake in an interview with Newsweek.

He compared the situation to the California Salton Sea, noting the dust storms that Cronkite News reported are from the silt at the lake bottom that is a major health risk when swept by the wind.

"The only difference is the Great Salt Lake, being a dead lake, has various chemicals in it, creating even bigger potential impact on populations surrounding the Great Salt Lake," Sagers said.

Republican lawmakers' initial efforts to combat the lake shrinkage are spurred by the current water levels. Gov. Spencer Cox proposed spending $46 million to address the issue, the AP reported. There is a bill that would pay farmers for sharing their water downstream. Another would direct money from mineral-extraction royalties to help the lake.

One proposal, the Great Salt Lake Contingency Bill, would enforce rising fees on secondary water users when lake levels fall to certain thresholds, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Sagers, who introduced the bill, said the fees would help water flow into the lake, with any revenue from that going toward mitigating lake issues. The fees would encourage conservation.

Great Salt Lake, Shrinking, Ecological Impacts, Bills
During the 2021 summer drought, the Great Salt Lake passed a 170-year-record-low, receding to 4,190.2 feet in October, according to the AP. In an aerial view, an evaporation pond is pinkish-red due to high salinity levels leaves a crust of salt on the north section of the Great Salt Lake on August 2, 2021, near Corinne, Utah. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Dust content near the Great Salt Lake contains harmful heavy metals, like arsenic, according to the Deseret News. Severe exposure to the dust can result in certain types of cancer and cardiovascular disease. The dust can and has already drifted through Salt Lake City, causing citizens to inhale the harmful dust, as shown by a video from Kevin Perry, a researcher at the University of Utah.

The lake also supports a minimum of 35 species of birds that use its wetlands as a major stop in their migration, the Deseret News reported. It also produces 40 percent of the world's brine shrimp harvest. It has minerals that makeup North America's only supply of primary magnesium, used in items like aluminum, laptops, cameras, and more.

During the 2021 summer drought, the Great Salt Lake passed a 170-year record low, receding to 4,190.2 feet in October, according to the AP. This caused microbialites, mushroom-like structures formed from green mats of microbes akin to a coral reef, to be exposed to air. The exposure killed the microbes, which feed the brine shrimp.

If the water levels continue to reduce, the lake could get too salty for the microbes to survive, the AP reported. This has already occurred in a northern area of the lake identified by bright pink waters. However, state geologist Michael Vanden Berg said there is still time to fix the situation in the south arm of the lake.

"It's bad but not catastrophic yet," he said, according to the AP.

"The Great Salt Lake needs some leaps to be saved. It's not going to do it with baby steps," Zach Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council, said, the AP reported. "These are tiny baby steps that should have been taken 20 years ago."