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Scientists fear a Great Toxic Dustbowl could soon emerge from the Great Salt Lake

<i>Evelio Contrera/CNN</i><br/>
Evelio Contrera/CNN

By Bill Weir, CNN Chief Climate Correspondent

Like the rest of the West, Utah has a water problem. But megadrought and overconsumption aren’t just threats to wildlife, agriculture and industry here. A disappearing Great Salt Lake could poison the lungs of more than 2.5 million people.

When lake levels hit historic lows in recent months, 800 square miles of lakebed were exposed — soil that holds centuries of natural and manmade toxins like mercury, arsenic and selenium. As that mud turns to dust and swirls to join some of the worst winter air pollution in the nation, scientists warn that the massive body of water could evaporate into a system of lifeless finger lakes within five years, on its way to becoming the Great Toxic Dustbowl.

“This is an ecological disaster that will become a human health disaster,” warned Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. “We know about dust storms, we know about particulate pollution, we know about heavy metals and how they’re bad for humans,” she told CNN. “We see a crisis that is imminent.”

As a so-called “terminal lake,” Great Salt Lake is fed by rain, snow and runoff but with no rivers to take water to the ocean, salt and minerals build up over time. Only brine flies and shrimp can survive in the salty water, creating a unique ecosystem that supports 10 million migratory birds. With only sail boats and paddleboards navigating the lake, it is so peaceful, 80,000 white pelicans annually nest on islands without fish.

But as the water evaporates without replenishment, the yacht basin is all mud, predators can walk to the pelican nests and the bottom of the food chain is collapsing.

“You’ve got the lake shrinking, the habitat is drying up and what water is remaining is too salty for (algae and microbes) to survive,” Baxter said.

She came to Utah to study this biology 15 years ago and soon realized that the fate of the brine shrimp is directly related to the future of Salt Lake City. When she’s not teaching biology, she visits schools, retirement homes and farm conventions to spread the word that every drop of water counts — now more than ever.

“It’s not like scientists to be dramatic,” Baxter laughed, but said there was no hesitation among the nearly three dozen scientists and conservationists who released the frightening report aimed directly at Utah legislators that said the lake was on track to vanish in five years.

Others have since joined the call for emergency measures. A new partnership between university researchers and state officials overseeing natural resources, agriculture and food have formed a “Great Salt Lake Strike Team,” and released a report this week urging lawmakers to rewrite water law.

“We have to get more water to the lake,” said Steed, executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water and Air at Utah State University and a co-chair of the strike team. “For a long time, I don’t think that people were sufficiently talking for the lake. Now, I think that we have a lot of people interested, the governor of the state and the legislature.”

As a sign of the unifying power of water, he traveled to the campus of rival University of Utah where the rooftop lab of John Lin, professor of Atmospheric Sciences, measures just how closely air and water are related.

“Air quality is bipartisan,” Lin said. “We all want clean air and to do something about it.”

The more than 2 million people who live in Salt Lake City and along the Wasatch Front from Ogden to Provo already suffer some of the worst winter air pollution in the country, with tiny particulates forming dense brown clouds. Further drying of the Great Salt Lake could lead to more pollution, Lin and Steed said.

As a cautionary tale, they point to California’s Owens Lake, which was notoriously drained by developers in the 1920s to build Los Angeles and inspired the watery, 1974 noir “Chinatown.” By 1926, the terminal lake was dry and producing billowing clouds of fine, toxic dust which became known as “Keeler fog” after it forced people in the town of Keeler to relocate.

A century later, every time an Angeleno pays a water bill, a portion goes to clean up the mistake with a dust mitigation program run by the city’s Department of Water and Power after the city took responsibility. After decades of moving water and gravel to control the dust, the bill for draining Owens Lake is $2.5 billion and rising.

“It was human choices that led to that catastrophic event,” Steed said of California’s painful lesson. “We’re looking at the Great Salt Lake in a position right now to where we can avoid that catastrophe, where we don’t have to spend those billions of dollars in remediation in the future if we make choices today.”

“Obviously, there’s fights,” he said, acknowledging the old “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting” clich√©. “But what gives me hope is that we’re seeing a lot more collaboration than I have seen in my lifetime, especially around something like the Great Salt Lake. There was a time that people thought that ‘Any water that makes it there, well, that’s just lost water.’ Now we’re seeing that the stuff that makes it there is actually really important to all of us here,” Steed said.

Moonshot proposals to save the lake include a plan to pipe water from the Pacific — a costly endeavor both in terms of money and planet-warming pollution.

“The carbon equation is enormous,” Baxter said, describing the amount of energy it would take to pump billions of gallons 750 miles. “The expense is enormous. And you would be bringing salt water here, which is actually not what we need. We don’t need more salt. We need less salt.”

“I think that the cheapest solution is for the state to buy some of the farmers out of their water rights and release some of this water in the natural system,” she said. “I know the farmers that I’ve talked to, they want to be part of the solution. They live here too.”

And while she waits for minds to change, Baxter can only hope for snow after recent storms raised the lake level by around a foot.

“But last year we went up a foot and down two and a half feet,” she shrugged. “The aquifers are dry so we’ve got to fill all of that first. So, the direct precipitation into the lake gave us a foot and that’s great. But the runoff in the spring might not bring as much water as we hope.”

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