Alana Casanova-Burgess: It's The Takeaway. I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess in for Melissa Harris-Perry. Right now the American West is facing its worst megadrought in 1,200 years. Yes, 1,200, and yes, megadrought. We go now to what this means for Utah's most iconic body of water.
Kevin Perry: The Great Salt Lake is the largest lake west of the Mississippi and it's the largest saline lake, which means salt in the Western hemisphere. It's a beautiful lake, it's more than a thousand square miles of water still to this day.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: That's-
Kevin Perry: Kevin Perry. I'm a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah and I'm a researcher who studies air quality.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: There's a megadrought, but there's also poor water management and a growing population. All that means the Great Salt Lake is slowly drying up.
Kevin Perry: The lake is actually under pressure from other uses of water. Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the United States and more people means more need for water. A lot of the water that would traditionally go into the lake is being diverted for other purposes. It's being diverted for agriculture to grow crops, it's being diverted to cities for municipal use and for watering lawns and landscaping, and it's being used by industry. The more we grow, the more we use the water.
We've actually been using the water in an unsustainable rate so that less water is actually making it to the Great Salt Lake than is necessary to maintain its elevation. As a result, the lake has been shrinking and it's shrunk by more than 17 feet over the last 30 years.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Because the Great Salt Lake is shrinking, it's getting saltier and saltier, which makes life harder for this delicate ecosystem.
Kevin Perry: The lake is now about five times saltier than the ocean. What that means is that there aren't many things that can live in that type of salinity. There are brine shrimps and there are brine flies that form the base of the food chain, but there are no fish in the Great Salt Lake. Still, that lake is vitally important for the industry here in Northern Utah and also for the birds that migrate and feast upon these brine shrimp and the brine flies.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: If the salt content in the lake becomes too high, it could threaten the brine shrimp and in turn the migratory birds, but that's not all because the shrinking lake has exposed hundreds of square miles of dried lake bed, which is starting to cause dust storms that endanger the lives of people who live nearby.
Kevin Perry: The dust from the Great Salt Lake is concerning for two reasons. The first reason is that when the dust comes off to the lake, it raises the particulate matter concentrations in the air to unhealthy levels. The EPA regulates two different kinds of particles, they're referred to PM10 and PM2.5. Those are just the size of the particles that get into your lungs. It doesn't matter what the dust is made out of, if the concentrations are high enough, then it causes an acute respiratory response and people will have trouble breathing. These dust plumes that come off the lake do raise the concentrations of particles to unhealthy levels.
That being said, I've spent the last several years trying to determine if there are other things in the dust that could be potentially toxic as well. One of the things that I found was very high concentrations of arsenic. Arsenic is a toxic heavy metal that can lead to different types of cancer; lung cancer, skin cancer, bladder cancer. It can also lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. If people were exposed to this dust and were breathing this arsenic latent dust over a period of decades or longer, then you'll start to see an increase in these types of health outcomes in the people who live downwind from the lake.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Essentially, what you're describing here is an unsustainable use of the water. The water level has gone down, as you said, 17 feet, which exposes soil that used to be covered up by the lake. That then is exposed to the air, it turns into dust, and it has heavy metals in it, as you mentioned, arsenic, I understand it also has copper, zirconium, other heavy metals. Then people who live in the area are then breathing that in, right?
Kevin Perry: When we have these dust storms that come off the lake, it's pretty dramatic. It reduces horizontal visibility sometimes to less than a mile. These dust plumes don't tend to last a long period of time, typically a few hours. In that time period, everybody, all two million residents along the Northern [unintelligible 00:05:02] in Northern Utah are exposed. The severity and frequency of these dust events is increasing the longer the lake remains at these low levels.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: I know we're used to thinking about the effects of severe drought in the west as being tied to wildfires, just how dry and flammable everything gets, but there are several lakes I understand that have been drying up like this Great Salt Lake that are now sources of this dust pollution that you're describing. This is not just one lake's problem?
Kevin Perry: Unfortunately, we have a systemic problem in the Western US. We're arid, we have fluctuating amounts of availability of water. The population is continuing to increase and the pressure to use that water continues to increase as well. The poster child for this is actually Owens dry lake in California, where Los Angeles completely diverted all of the water that went into Owens Lake in the early 1900s and completely dried up that lake.
It turned out to be the largest dust source in North America and it continues to be the largest dust source in North America to this day despite the fact that Los Angeles has spent more than $2 billion trying to find alternative ways of reducing the dust rather than putting water in the system. The scary part is that Owens Lake is only about one-tenth the size of the Great Salt Lake, and Owens Lake happens to be in a rural area while the Great Salt Lake happens to be adjacent to two million people.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Wow. On that point, what is the future of Salt Lake City if it continues this way? I understand that the population is projected to grow almost 50% in the next few decades. I also read that the city already uses more water than other desert cities. What does this mean for the lake? Is there anything that can be done.
Kevin Perry: If you had asked me that same question three years ago, I would've painted a really bleak picture. I would've said that the people didn't care about the water usage, they were going to use it until the Great Salt Lake dried up, the Great Salt Lake would turn into a massive dust bowl and we'd have to change our name from Salt Lake City to Dust Lake City.
Things have changed, people can see the dust coming off of the lake and they have a very big awareness about the linkages between poor air quality and human health and they're very concerned about what they might be breathing. As a result, they spoke to their legislators and the legislators listened and the legislators held the very first salt lake summit in January of this year. The purpose of that summit was to educate the lawmakers about the ecosystem and the problems that were ensuing from unsustainable water use and to strategize for things that could be done to improve the situation.
Surprisingly, from my perspective, the lawmakers responded with a slew of legislation that removed many of the key barriers for getting water into the lake. It's a very good start, but it's going to take continued effort and cooperation from mother nature. We need to get out of this megadrought. Despite all of the statutory changes that can be made, as long as we're in this nugget drought, it's going to be really difficult for the lake to recover. Once we get out of that, I think these changes and the ones that are coming forward will make a big difference so that we can, in fact, save this lake and the ecosystem and reduce the impact that the dust will have on the local inhabitants.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Thank you so much. Kevin Perry is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah.
Kevin Perry: Thank you very much.
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