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As Great Salt Lake shrivels and Salt Lake Valley’s population grows, state regulators reveal what worries them most


Utah has made progress in cleaning up its polluted air, but climate change could blow that progress upwards.

One only has to look at the Great Salt Lake drying up to see a time bomb. As the bottom of the lake is exposed and dried out, it could turn into a source of toxic pollution in the form of blown dust.

“We are really concerned about the Great Salt Lake and the impacts that we are seeing due to the historic drought, but also clearly the impacts due to climate change and all the variables that we just cannot control as humans. or decision makers. Utah Senator Derek Kitchen of D-Salt Lake City, who this week hosted a town hall on the lake and air quality, said. He said he was “inundated” with calls. voters concerned.

The lake reached a record elevation in July, and with an intense drought hitting most of the state, there is little relief in sight.

Last year, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council released a report containing 12 strategies for increasing the amount of water reaching the lake. Some include efforts already underway, such as metering of untreated secondary water and incentives for more efficient irrigation. Others require rethinking long-standing water laws, such as recognizing a right to conserve water and finding a way to ensure that conserved water gets to the bottom of it. to the lake.

“I like to think of Grand Lac Salé as a nasty problem where there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Laura Vernon, who works as Grand Lac Salé coordinator in a new role created by the Assembly. legislative. “The solution is not cheap. And [if] you fix a problem somewhere and then it creates another problem somewhere else.

The Great Salt Lake is in desperate need of water, state regulators noted during town hall, but there’s no easy way to get it. A 2016 study by the Division of Water Resources, Utah State University and others found that the lake’s elevation would be 11 feet higher today if humans did not divert water from its tributaries. , such as the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers. Water rights claim every drop in the state, and rights holders have little incentive to let them flow downstream, especially since persistent drought drains state reservoirs.

Press “play” on the timelapse to see how the Great Salt Lake has shrunk over the past decades, exposing a large area of ​​dry lake bed.

“We are one of the driest states in the country,” said Candice Hasenyager, director of water resources, “… [and] yes, we use a lot of water and we can do better.

Meanwhile, population growth along the Wasatch Front is booming, but it is within a small airshed. The region’s unique geography already makes it prone to winter inversion pollution and unhealthy summer ozone. But state regulators are also monitoring pollution caused by lake bottom dust, which could have an additional impact on the quality of life in the region.

“We’ve seen examples … in our own state,” said Bryce Bird, director of the Air Quality Division, “[where] some dry lake beds in the western desert were responsible for the dust impact on the Salt Lake valley due to the wind. “

A 2019 study from Brigham Young University found that almost all of northern Utah’s urban dust comes from dry lake beds. Dust not only makes it harder to breathe, but it also melts the snowpack faster and adversely affects soils.

And in a previous BYU study, researchers found that most of the dust in Ogden and Logan came from Sevier Dry Lake, hundreds of miles away in Millard County. This means that the consequences of a dry Great Salt Lake could be far-reaching.

“The air quality and levels of the Great Salt Lake are very closely related,” said Kerry Kelly, associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah and member of the state’s Air Quality Policy Board. “And there are metals in some areas of Great Salt Lake that are of concern. Arsenic is one of them.

One reason for optimism is that Utah has made strides in improving air quality, in large part thanks to stricter pollution standards set by the states Environmental Protection Agency. -United. The people of the valley no longer use coal to heat their homes. Cars and industry have improved technology to reduce emissions.

“Air pollution levels in the 1950s were much higher than they are today,” Bird said. “And … we have been able to accommodate the growth of both industry and business and, of course, population.”

But climate change and other environmental concerns could hamper the state’s efforts on air quality. In addition to the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake, a generalized drought ignites the western forests. This summer, smoke from wildfires caused Salt Lake County to exceed federal health standards 16 times for daily particulate pollution, Bird said.

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) Looking east from downtown Salt Lake City, air pollution, largely from wildfire smoke, obscures views of the mountains Wasatch on August 6, 2018.

“Unfortunately, what we’re hearing is that in the absence of other forest management to reduce the fuel load, forest fires at these levels… are going to be the future,” Bird said. “This is the natural cycle of forest burning.”

But invisible ozone remains Utah’s biggest summer air quality challenge – Salt Lake County had 39 days to exceed federal standards for this pollutant.

The main contributors to ozone pollution are hot days and car emissions, and models show that as the Salt Lake Valley expands beyond city centers, the number of kilometers traveled by vehicles will increase at double the population rate, Bird said.

“If we don’t find new technologies and adopt new practices,” he added, “the kind of [air quality] controls already in place will be overwhelmed by growth over the next 12 to 15 years or so. “

Future sources of pollution will likely hit the west side the hardest, Kelly said, as air quality already tends to be worse than on the east side. Planned developments like the inland port could exacerbate the problem.

“There are other ports around the country and many of them have air quality action plans,” Kelly said. “… If we are not leaders in terms of port and clean air, we will follow. “

While a shriveled Great Salt Lake is almost certain to have an additional impact on Utah’s airshed, there is more at stake than just pollution, state scientists noted.

About 5% to 7% of the famous Wasatch snow comes from lake-effect storms. Grand Lac Salé generates 7,000 jobs and $ 1.3 billion annually through mineral harvesting, artemia aquaculture, tourism and other lake industries. A 2019 report from the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council predicts more than $ 2 billion in annual economic costs and losses if the lake continues to dry up.

“There are no quick fixes to solving the problems associated with the Great Salt Lake,” Hasenyager said. “And that keeps me from sleeping at night.”

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