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Officials discover potential health risk looming in famous U.S. lake: 'We can learn ... how we can avoid those mistakes'

The lake hit a record-low water level in November 2022.

Great Salt Lake is shrinking

Photo Credit: iStock

For decades, Utah's Great Salt Lake has been declining. As the pool of water shrinks, minerals and chemicals are concentrated into a smaller and smaller amount of water, while the exposed lake bed dries out. 

After years of this, both the water and the dust have become hazardous to the living things in the surrounding environment — including people — The Nation reported.

What's happening?

The Great Salt Lake hit a record-low water level in November 2022, The Nation stated. As a result, the lake's Antelope Island is no longer an island and is now connected to the shoreline by the exposed ground. Nearby Farmington Bay is drying out, too.

What's left behind is dust. In some places it's protected by a hard, dry crust, but in others, the dust is loose and can easily be blown into the air.

Why worry about the Great Salt Lake's water level?

Starting in 2016, Kevin Perry, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, received funding to study the dust from the lake bed, per The Nation. Utah's Division of Facilities, Construction, and Management wanted to know if the dust would pose a health risk at the site of a new prison.

"The prison couldn't be in a worse location" because of dust and other nearby pollution sources, Perry said. But the state went ahead with building the prison there anyway.

The pollution problem extends much farther than just the new prison. All of Salt Lake City and surrounding areas will be affected — although the communities heavily populated by people of color on the west side of the city will get the worst of it.

Meanwhile, populations of brine flies and brine shrimp, which are the foundation of the area's ecosystem, are being damaged by the lake's record salt content. The lake's South Arm measured 19% salinity last fall; by comparison, the ocean is 3.5%. The migrating birds that rely on the shrimp and flies for food have no other alternative food sources in the desert and could be seriously harmed by the dropping water and rising salt levels.

What can be done about the water problem?

This spring, the Great Salt Lake got a record-setting boost from snow melt, which raised the water level a little. However, that isn't enough to fix the problem long-term.

According to The Nation, the Earth's rising temperature is part of the reason for the shrinking lake, but about 70% of the issue is overuse by people, including water-guzzling alfalfa farms.

"This is a good and a bad thing," Perry told The Nation. "The future of the Great Salt Lake is within our power to fix."

Concerned residents have formed Friends of Great Salt Lake, an organization inspired by the success story of Mono Lake in California. That lake has had a legally established minimum water level since 1994. Friends executive director Lynn de Freitas told The Nation: "We can learn from others how we can avoid those mistakes, how we can maintain the system, and the value that it provides by keeping water in it."

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