Industrial activity is causing problems with this natural process. Salt mining, potash operations, and other human activity was not only drying the area up, but was taking salt out of the system entirely. For example, potash operations pumped salt water and brine out from beneath the flats, which then got replaced with fresh groundwater.
In recent years, people fooling around on the salt flats started having problems. Instead of being feet deep like they used to be, the salt flats are now getting very shallow. Now, drivers making sudden turns or spinning tires on the flats can break through and even get stuck in the salty mud that lies beneath. Even if you don’t get stuck, leaving ruts in the salt means danger for anyone else who passes through at high speeds. Hitting a pothole at normal street and highway speeds sucks, but hitting one at over 100 MPH can easily lead to injury or death.
The State of Utah and BLM are trying to restore the salt flats (along with their beauty and recreational uses) by pumping salt water from nearby potash operations (which have been taking salt from beneath the flats for decades, and contributing to their decline) onto the flats. This has led to at least partial restoration in a limited area, but restoring the whole area’s salt flats seems increasingly unlikely.
If this was something that only affected racers, it probably wouldn’t matter that much, but it’s starting to hurt the whole region.
At the edges, the salt is disappearing completely, exposing reddish dust instead of salt, and creating conditions like we see near El Paso’s former lakes. Near El Paso, the salt likely disappeared over hundreds of thousands of years, allowing the toxins to dissipate some before the dust blew into the air. In Utah, this suddenly-exposed reddish dust comes with all of the problems that occur near El Paso, but also has higher concentrations of toxins and causes premature snow melt in the nearby mountains, leading to further drying up of the Great Salt Lake. On top of that, the dust has been contaminated over 150 years by mining and potash operations, leading to even worse problems than El Paso will ever see.
All of these factors make a drying Salt Lake a lot more like the Aral Sea or Owens Lake. In both of those cases, the lakes were contaminated by agricultural runoff, mining, and industrial activity before they dried up. When a contaminated lake dries up, the natural arsenic and other toxins is still a problem, but the dust will have all of these other contaminants, too.
If the Salt Flats are allowed to fully dissipate, residents of Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming can expect higher rates of cancer, respiratory conditions, digestive disorders, anemia, liver problems, eye problems, and higher transmission of infectious diseases. During particularly bad wind storm events, these contaminants will be carried all over the continent.
And, all of this would happen even if the lake didn’t dry up.
The Lake’s Setting Records, Too, Because People Think They’re Fulfilling A Prophecy
The bad news: the lake is drying up.
Let’s go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when some wet years led to record lake levels. At its highest, the lake never even approached its former Little Ice Age levels, let alone any form of Lake Bonneville, but all of the human building that had happened along its shores in the 19th and 20th centuries didn’t happen with any awareness that the lake’s levels could fluctuate. When they did go up, flooding was a major problem, and even Interstate 80 was starting to have problems.
In response, the state built massive pumping stations on the western end of the lake to pump water out onto the salt flats miles away from the lake. By dumping the water out of the lake and allowing it to evaporate in another dry basin, they were able to lower the lake by several feet. Combined with normal evaporation as the wet years ended, the lake levels dropped again and the pumps were turned off. They still stand west of the lake, and can be brought back into working order again should the lake’s levels ever get too high for human activities again.
Since 1990, the prospect of ever using these pumps again has become increasingly unlikely.
First off, a warming climate is increasing evaporation in the lake. Even if the water going into the lake stayed the same, levels would have still dropped because too much water leaves the lake. Yes, there were normal episodes of expansion and contraction in past decades, but this time has been different enough to lead to the lake being lower than it has been since Mormon settlers arrived.
On top of the increased evaporation, humans aren’t letting as much water go to the lake. Despite living in a desert, Utahns like to make things as green and lush as possible. For many Mormons, they think greening up the desert is the fulfillment of ancient Biblical prophecy. This mindset leads to people in Utah using 242 gallons per person per day, which is huge compared to the daily water usage of other western cities. As Mother Jones points out, over 70% of residential water is used outside for things like lawns and gardens, while that number is closer to 40% in Los Angeles. The thirsty population of Utah has exploded in recent decades, and much of this water had to come out of the rivers that feed the Salt Lake, so the lake just doesn’t get the water that it used to.
Less water combined with more evaporation means the lake is disappearing.
“Every time the wind blows, we’re subject to the dust from these dry lake beds being scattered all over,” Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment told The Salt Lake Tribune. “There are residuals of pesticides and agricultural chemicals that migrated into the lake over many decades.”
Continue reading in Part 4.
Featured Image: In aerial imagery provided by Google, you can see disappearing salt starting to expose the reddish dust beneath it, a process that likely happened slowly near El Paso.