Wildlife and air quality threatened as Grand Lac Salé recedes

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – The silvery blue waters of the Great Salt Lake stretch through the Utah Desert, having covered an area almost the size of Delaware for much of history. For years, however, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River has been shrinking. And a drought in the American West could make this the worst year yet.

The receding water is already affecting the nesting grounds of pelicans, which are among the millions of birds dependent on the lake. Sailboats were hoisted out of the water to prevent them from getting stuck in the mud. A drier lake bed that is exposed could send arsenic-containing dust into the air millions of people breathe.

“We have talked a lot about the lake as a flat line,” said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the Friends of the Great Salt Lake.

Lake levels are expected to hit a 170-year low this year. It comes as drought is forcing the western United States to prepare for a brutal wildfire season and deal with already low reservoirs. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, pleaded with people to cut back on watering lawns and “pray for rain.”

RELATED: Drought Conditions In Utah Worse Than 1930s Dust Bowl

For the Great Salt Lake, however, this is only the last challenge. For years, people have diverted water from the rivers that flow into the lake to water crops and supply homes. Because the lake is shallow – around 35 feet (11 meters) at its deepest point – less water quickly results in shoreline receding.

The remaining water stretches across part of northern Utah, with highways on one side and isolated land on the other. A seaside resort – closed for a long time – once attracted bathers who floated like corks in the very salty waters. Picnic tables once a few steps from the shore are now a 10-minute walk away.

Robert Atkinson, 91, remembers this seaside resort and the feeling of weightlessness in the water. When he returned this year to fly over the lake in a motorized paraglider, he found it changed.

It’s much shallower than I expected, ”he said.

The waves were replaced by a dry, gravelly lake bed that reached 750 square miles (1,942 square kilometers). The winds can lift dust from the dry lake bottom that is mixed with natural arsenic, said Kevin Perry, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah.

It runs through an area that already has the dirtiest winter air in the country due to seasonal geographic conditions that trap pollution between the mountains.

Perry warns of what happened at Lake Owens in California, which was pumped dry to feed thirsty Los Angeles and created a bowl of dust that cost millions of dollars to tamp down. The Great Salt Lake is much larger and closer to a populated area, Perry said.

Fortunately, much of Utah’s giant lake bed has a crust that makes it harder for dust to blow. Perry is studying how long the protective crust will last and how dangerous the arsenic in the soil could be to humans.

This year promises to be particularly dark. Utah is one of the driest states in the country and most of its water comes from snowfall. The snowpack was below normal last winter and the ground was dry, meaning that much of the sleet that was pouring from the mountains sank into the ground.

In most years, the Grand Lac Salé gains up to 2 feet (half a meter) of spring runoff. This year, he was only 6 inches (15 centimeters), said Perry.

We have never had a lake level in April as low as this year, ”he said.

A more exposed lake bed also means more people have ventured onto the crust, including all-terrain vehicles damaging it, said Laura Vernon, coordinator for Great Salt Lake.

The more continuous drought we have, the more the salt crust will be altered and more dust will end up in the air because there is less of this protective crust layer, ”she said.

Swirling dust could also accelerate the melting of Utah snow, according to research by McKenzie Skiles, a snow hydrologist at the University of Utah. His study showed that dust from a storm made the snow so much darker that it melted a week earlier than expected. While much of this dust came from other sources, the expansion of the dry lake bed raises concerns about changes in the state’s multibillion-dollar ski industry.

No one wants to ski in dirty snow, ”she said.

While the lake’s vast waters are too salty for most creatures except brine shrimp, for sailors like Marilyn Ross, 65, it’s a tranquil paradise with vistas of distant peaks.

You go out on this lake and it’s better than going to a psychiatrist, it’s really very calming, “she said.

But this year the little red boat named Promiscuous that she and her husband have sailed for over 20 years has been hoisted out of the water with a huge crane just at the start of the season. The lake’s record highs were expected to leave boats stuck in the mud rather than skimming the waves. Low water closed the other main marina for years.

RELATED: Experts: Drainage of Great Salt Lake Could Result in Loss of $ 2 Billion Per Year

“Some people think we can never come back,” Ross said.

Brine shrimp support a $ 57 million food industry in Utah, but in years to come, less water could make the salinity too high for even these tiny creatures to survive.

“We are really coming at a critical time for the Great Salt Lake,” said Jaimi Butler, coordinator of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. She studies the American white pelican, one of the largest birds in North America.

They flock to Gunnison Island, a remote outpost in the lake where up to 20% of the bird population nest, with male and female birds cooperating to watch over the eggs at all times.

“Mum goes fishing and dad stays at the nest,” Butler said.

But the drop in the lake’s level exposed a land bridge to the island, allowing foxes and coyotes to cross over and hunt rodents and other food. The activity scares off the timid birds used to a quiet place to raise their young, so they flee the nests, leaving the eggs and young to be eaten by the gulls.

Pelicans aren’t the only birds dependent on the lake. It is a stopover for many species to feed on their journey south.

A study from Utah State University indicates that to maintain lake levels, diverting water from rivers flowing into them would have to decrease by 30%. But for the nation’s fastest growing state, tackling the problem will require a major change in how water is allocated and perceptions of the lake, which smells strongly in some places caused by treated wastewater and home to billions of brine. flies.

There are a lot of people who believe that every drop that goes into Great Salt Lake is wasted, ”said Perry. “This is the perspective that I’m trying to change. The lake also has needs. And they are not met.

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