“Prime The Pump”
On top of these Aral Sea-like health issues is the loss of lake-effect snow, a problem that creates a feedback loop of drying.
Unlike the lake-effect of the Great Lakes, the Salt Lake can’t really add much moisture to the air in winter, but it can serve as an atmospheric destabilizer and source of energy for snow storms. This means moisture that might otherwise pass through the area turns into storms that deposit snow on nearby mountain ranges. This snow then helps serve the region’s human water needs and helps recharge the lake itself. Sadly, human shortsightedness and apathy toward the fate of the lake could ultimately mean that there’s less water to go around in the long run, and not more.
Comically enough, this situation is similar to a film that was popular in Mormon church classes a few years ago: The Pump. Made in 1988 and set in the 1950s, the short film shows a foolish man get stuck in the desert with car trouble. When he tries to hike out to survive, he comes across a ghost town with a lone water pump attached to a wellhead. The man desperately tries to get water from the well by pumping it furiously, but gets nothing. When he gives up from exhaustion, he notices a small piece of paper hanging in a water bucket, with a note.
“This here pump’s OK, but the washer gets dry, and she’s gotta be primed.” The note says. “There’s a jug of water under the rock. Pour it all in, and pump like crazy. Oh, you’ll get water! She ain’t never run dry! Don’t go drinking any first, ain’t enough. Just prime the pump. When you’re watered up, fill the jug and put ‘er back.”
The man, unwilling to trust some old note, chugs the water in the jug and continues on his way. Later, he perishes from thirst in the desert before he can get as far as the interstate.
Ironically, this is much the same choice Utah faces today. They can leave some water in the rivers to keep the lake from drying up, and it’ll give them snowpack for decades to come. Or, fearing that the water would be wasted flowing into a salt lake, they can drink it all now and not put any in the lake, and end up with less water in the rivers.
Ways Out Of This Bad Path
Unlike the Aral Sea, Owens Lake, or Lake Palomas (one of the remnants of Lake Cabeza de Vaca we discussed earlier), the Salt Lake hasn’t dried up yet, and the salt flats near it aren’t totally depleted yet. It’s still possible to stop and even reverse the decline of the lake before things get truly awful.
It’s tempting to reach for the “import more water” lever, but as I explored in this series of articles, there are some serious drawbacks to doing something crazy like pulling water in from the Mississippi. Not only are there problems with invasive species transfer and reducing flows elsewhere, but future supplies even from the Mississippi aren’t guaranteed.
As the Utah Rivers Council points out, the biggest problem in Utah isn’t drought, but waste. Overwatering huge property-wide lawns during the heat of the day, and letting the water drain onto sidewalks and into the streets is the problem.
In other words, conservation needs to be the solution.
A Cultural Shift Needs To Happen
For this to happen, the first change that needs to happen is cultural, and almost 70% of the population is Mormon. This population believes it’s OK to use copious amounts of water because it fulfills prophecy and therefore God will take care of it. They also believe that the president of their church is a “prophet, seer, and revelator” and can speak for God. Kids are even taught songs like Follow The Prophet, which teaches them that it’s literally dangerous to not listen to the head of the church.
There’s even a common quote people in the Mormon church quote as if it were scripture: “When the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done.” While this is actually not an official teaching of their church, I was told this by well-meaning adults when I was growing up in the Mormon church (I’m no longer a member), and the general attitude pervades Mormon culture and beliefs.
I know many readers are probably thinking that the best way forward would be for people to stop being so cultish, and think for themselves, but that’s not going to happen quickly enough to save the lake and the environment of the whole region from catastrophe.
Instead, we really need the Mormon church’s leadership to step up and do the right thing on this one. One talk at their semiannual General Conference and a few followup letters and policy positions could set this all straight. All they’d need to do is clarify that the prophecy that compels Mormons to “green the desert” isn’t fulfilled if they don’t sustain the region’s environmental health long-term. Drying up the lake would, in fact, have quite the opposite effect and make the prophecy be unfulfilled.
If their leadership could encourage the members to not only multiply, but also replenish the earth (as in, give back to it so it doesn’t die off), then you’d see landscapers in Utah make a lot of money for the next few years. You couldn’t drive the trucks fast enough to carry out all of the lawns people would be ripping out and replacing with more sensible xeriscaping. This, combined with state government incentives, would probably free up enough water to save the Great Salt Lake.
In the next part, I’m going to share some more cultural and technological ideas that can be used to help save the lake and prevent environmental catastrophe, including the role clean technologies could play in this effort. We can’t put clean technologies at the center of the effort, but once cultural barriers are lowered, we’ll definitely need those levers.
Continue reading in Part 5
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.