You won’t see the biggest danger to the quality of the air in northern Utah and elsewhere if you only look at the Great Salt Lake from above. But on the ground, scientists are working on a study that tries to save the lake by spreading awareness, one mile at a time. There’s a good possibility that you’ll discover Kevin Perry if you go off the usual route near Syracuse and Layton.
The lack of backyard exploration is genuinely regrettable. He has made it his mission to jump into the former body of water, although boats have long been useless at this location. This University of Utah professor of atmospheric sciences likes to go on a “fat bike” since it is essential to research equipment for crossing Farmington Bay. Perry invited us to go with him.
Perry informed us after we traveled hundreds of yards of flat, dry ground, “We are now at least four miles from any water… in Farmington Bay.” The Jordan River used to overflow into this lake bed, but today the small channel pools on the opposite side of Antelope Island. The only source of the waves on this former wetland is the heat emitted from its bare surface.
What appears to be a packed, hard, salty playa can actually be quite delicate, and there is where the true issue arises. An extremely thin, shallow crust. As we pedaled, Perry kept pointing out dust hotspots, which he says make up as much as 9% of the lake bed that is now exposed. Perry stated, “When the wind comes along, it starts to pulverize this. Regardless of its composition, dust is hazardous when it is present in excessive amounts (in the air we breathe).
Check out my story about the dust danger from the Great Salt Lake… It’s not just the annoyance of poor air quality we’re worried about.
— Dan Spindle KSL (@DanSpindleKSL) August 8, 2022
This dust contains naturally occurring, cancer-causing arsenic, making it hazardous to children, the elderly, and anyone with breathing problems now, as well as potentially fatal in the future. The Great Salt Lake’s dust plumes weren’t a topic of conversation ten years ago. A decade may pass before things improve
Perry educates colleagues, the public, and practically anybody who will listen about the impending ticking time bomb through his biweekly research, which is outfitted with a cutting-edge dust storm simulator. Look only 600 miles to the southwest and a century back for a warning story about Utah’s Great Salt Lake’s uncertain future. In 1913, California drained Owens Lake, virtually stealing water from the Sierra Nevada mountains to support the expansion of Los Angeles.
The largest source of dust in North America for decades was caused by that water diversion. It was simple to try to overlook the toxic cloud spreading a long, dangerous shadow because L.A.’s population core was receiving so much attention Perry predicted that the return of water to Owens Lake would be the solution to our problem with hazardous dust.
The future we were going to face caused me to seriously contemplate changing the name of Salt Lake City to Dust Lake City. The water situation has been addressed by more than a dozen laws and state statutes passed just this session, so Perry no longer feels that way. It’s not just about the dust, either. Millions of migratory birds pause here in northern Utah to feed because of the delicate ecology.
The belief that this is still the place to plant roots and raise a family is also important for future generations. “We still have some restrictions. To survive, we require water. For us to develop crops, water is necessary. The population’s carrying capacity would need to be decreased without water. As Utah continues to be the state with the strongest growth, no population decline is likely.
Therefore, conservation will be essential to bringing the water back. Perry has a response for individuals who don’t think their proximity to the lake prevents them from being disturbed by bad air quality and dangerous contaminants. Everyone will be impacted, from Salt Lake City and Provo all the way down to Tremonton, Brigham City, and Ogden.
North America has seen megadroughts in the past, and according to Perry, in the coming decades, we will experience more rain than snow. However, previous catastrophic droughts have persisted for anything between 30 and 70 years. The rain will come back eventually. But the real question is whether this ecology will survive the next round of rain. The decision to add extra water to the lake at this critical time is ours to decide.