Oct 19, 2022
Utah’s Great Salt Lake shrinks to unsustainable levels amid a decades-long megadrought Transcript
The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest body of water in the western hemisphere without an outlet to the sea. Scientists say the record-low water levels the lake has seen in recent years are worrying. Read the transcript here.
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Speaker 1 (00:00):
The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest body of salt water in the western hemisphere without an outlet to the sea. An ongoing mega drought made worse by climate change means less precipitation and a growing population is taking more water before the lake can refill. Scientists say, “The resulting record low water levels and recent years are worrying.” Stephanie Sy explored the lake, both on and off the water to learn more.
Speaker 2 (00:27):
Reaching the waters of the Great Salt Lake from almost any direction these days is a hike, and Brian Footen is carrying a heavy load. Founder of the Earth View’s Conservation Society, he’s equipped a kayak with cameras and sensors, mobile tools to map the receding shoreline.
Speaker 3 (00:46):
This is going to log water quality data every 10 seconds. Things like temperature, dissolved oxygen.
Speaker 2 (00:52):
Satellite images capture the extent of the lake shrinkage since 1985. But Footen says there’s nothing like bringing the public right to its dwindling surface through his interactive website.
Speaker 3 (01:04):
It doesn’t take charts and graphs and big scientific reports to tell this story, right? All you have to do is go out there and look.
Speaker 2 (01:12):
And so we did, paddling through shallow waters with an astonishing vacancy of life. This northern arm of the lake is already forever changed by human decisions. The red tint is a result of extremely high salinity. It was choked off from the rest of the lake years ago to build a railroad causeway.
Speaker 3 (01:32):
The Great Salt Lake is drying up. Climate change is responsible, developers are responsible, and it just goes over the top of people’s heads, right?
Speaker 2 (01:39):
Speaker 3 (01:40):
And so what we’re doing is using this imagery as a way to go, “Wow, look at this. This is really happening.”
Speaker 2 (01:45):
Footen also sends the data he collects to biologist Bonnie Baxter.
Speaker 4 (01:50):
The water is way out there now.
Speaker 2 (01:52):
We meet her on the southern end of the Great Salt Lake. It is eerily quiet and smells of brine. I feel like we’re in the middle of just a dead zone here.
Speaker 4 (02:02):
Speaker 2 (02:02):
It feels like another planet.
Speaker 4 (02:04):
So it’s like a dead coral reef. It’s like a cemetery and these are the tombstones.
Speaker 2 (02:09):
It feels like that.
Speaker 4 (02:11):
Yeah. If we see larva in the water or people casings, there’re sharpies to write on.
Speaker 2 (02:18):
Baxter brings researchers from Westminster College to gather specimens weekly.
Speaker 4 (02:23):
These mounds should be covered with mats of microorganisms that do photosynthesis and bring the sun’s energy into the lake system. But you can see that they’re dry and they’re not green and they’re out of the water. Even the ones in the water are not healthy because they’re too salty. The ones out of the water are too dry.
Speaker 2 (02:46):
The mounds are called microbialites.
Speaker 4 (02:49):
This is the foundation of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, and we’re seeing it crash and die right before our eyes.
Speaker 2 (02:57):
The lake is at its lowest level in history. As a result, it’s becoming too salty, even for species adapted to high salinity.
Speaker 4 (03:06):
We’re not finding any fly pupae today. That’s terrifying.
Speaker 2 (03:12):
Brine flies feed the millions of birds that flock here, as do brine shrimp, which are also harvested. It’s just one part of the $1.3 billion economic output of the Great Salt Lake. To understand why the lake is drying up, you have to zoom out to the surrounding areas of the lake’s namesake, Salt Lake City.
Speaker 5 (03:33):
The state of Utah as a whole is the fastest growing state in the nation. Yellow is the new green.
Speaker 2 (03:40):
Erin Mendenhall is the mayor, a Democrat.
Speaker 5 (03:43):
Salt Lake City as the capital is seeing more growth in terms of units each year than almost anywhere else in the state.
Speaker 2 (03:49):
There are more city residents than ever, but they’re actually using less water.
Speaker 5 (03:55):
We are absolutely committed to saving this lake with whatever we can. Last year that was 2.6 billion gallons of water that Salt Lakers conserved. This year, it’s already up to 2.9 billion gallons.
Speaker 2 (04:07):
The city’s achieved that not by mandating water restrictions, but by raising water rates about 15% a year and implementing a tiered rate structure.
Speaker 5 (04:18):
So the more you consume, those water rates go up even faster. And these water rates reflect the urgency that we feel as Salt Lakers.
Speaker 2 (04:26):
But beyond the capital, developments are springing up along the Wasatch Front, single family homes with lawns full of Kentucky bluegrass that demands daily watering.
Speaker 6 (04:37):
It’s Ephedra, so something that’s a native species. This right here [inaudible 00:04:41]-
Speaker 2 (04:41):
In Salt Lake City, Jennifer and John Lair are part of a grassroots movement to swap bluegrass lawns for native plants that need less water.
Speaker 6 (04:50):
Especially with the kind of exponential growth that the Wasatch Front has seen and expects to see for the next 25, 30 years, there just isn’t going to be enough water.
Speaker 7 (04:59):
Makes us wonder if we need to be thinking about living somewhere else. I mean, it’s an idea we toss around. How seriously? I don’t know, kind of depends on the day. Of course, the question then becomes, where do you go from there? Where is not going to be impacted by climate change?
Speaker 2 (05:15):
While conservation efforts by residents of Salt Lake City will definitely help, it may not be enough. Two thirds of the water in the Great Salt Lake watershed goes to agriculture, including the water from the Bear River. It irrigates the farms and ranches whose yields Utah families have relied on since Mormon pioneers settled the region in the 1800s, fulfilling they believed a biblical prophecy to make the desert blossom.
Speaker 8 (05:42):
I don’t know what normal looks like anymore. It’s been a long time since we’ve had good winters and good moisture.
Speaker 2 (05:49):
Joel Ferry has a unique perspective. A fifth generation Utah cattle rancher, he’s also a former Republican State representative, and now the director of the State’s Department of Natural Resources.
Speaker 8 (06:01):
Water in the state of Utah is a prior appropriation. So whoever used it first has the first right to use it today, and a lot of those rights belong to farmers.
Speaker 2 (06:10):
Is it time for that to change?
Speaker 8 (06:12):
Well, no. I mean, we have laws and we have structure. So what it’s time for us to do is to implement more conservation measures.
Speaker 2 (06:19):
Bipartisan support for conserving water for the Great Salt Lake led to a dozen laws enacted this year by the Republican dominated state government. The reforms among many provisions do away with use or lose water policies.
Speaker 8 (06:34):
We passed legislation that me as a farmer, I can say, “You know what? I’m going to take my water, I’m going to put it in the river and I’ll receive a beneficial use,” which totally changes the mindset of that use it or lose it. I might say, “You know what? Wheat is not worth very much. I don’t want it. I’m going to get some compensation if I leave it in the river.”
Speaker 2 (06:52):
One of the biggest worries is that the Great Salt Lake will go the way of others before it, not just drying up and seizing to be a source of water, but becoming a source of poison. Biologist Bonnie Baxter says, “More than 40% of the lake bed is no longer covered by water and could turn to dust.”
Speaker 4 (07:11):
We’re likely to see an increase in dust storm as we expose more shorelines. We’re likely to see more dust.
Speaker 2 (07:20):
And that’s toxic dust because there is arsenic and heavy metal-
Speaker 4 (07:23):
Speaker 2 (07:24):
… in this lake bed.
Speaker 4 (07:25):
Right. So breathing these small particles has a huge impact on human health. But then you talk about the heavy metals and what that does to a system over time, and that’s a little scary.
Speaker 2 (07:41):
Other dried out Salt Lakes provide a cautionary tale. In the early 20th century, water from the Sierra Nevada mountains was diverted from Owens Lake to growing Los Angeles. By the 1920s, the lake was dry. And for decades after, toxic dust plumes sickened area residents. It is only one reason why for hours a day Brian Footen paddles along the lake’s shoreline, documenting its disappearance.
Speaker 3 (08:10):
I think one of the big stories that’s being missed in the talk about the climate and the drought and the agriculture and the development in Salt Lake is that this is a unique ecosystem on the planet. There’s nothing else like it.
Speaker 2 (08:27):
And that in itself he says is a reason for saving it. For the PBS News Hour, I’m Stephanie Sy at the Great Salt Lake in Utah.