The Great Salt Lake is drying up. Can it be saved?
Utah’s Great Salt Lake. It’s the largest Salt Lake in the western hemisphere. But it’s drying up, fast.
In the 1980s, the lake covered more than 3,000 square miles.
By 2021, it covered barely 950 square miles. Meaning, the lake could disappear entirely in just five years.
“When you look at the state of saline lakes around the world the percentage of what lakes have survived is zero, zero. So, we have a monumental task before us,” Terry Tempest Williams says.
This isn’t just an environmental catastrophe in the making. Utah’s economy and public health are at risk. It could be a religious and spiritual loss too.
“Are we doing enough? The answer is absolutely not, right. I mean, we needed a plan 20 years ago,” Ben Abbot says. “It’s a question of can we accelerate fast enough? And I actually believe that that we can.”
Today, On Point: Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Can it be saved?
Terry Tempest Williams, a writer who lives in Utah and grew up near the Great Salt Lake. Harvard Divinity School writer-in-residence. Author of a NYT op-ed “I Am Haunted by What I Have Seen at Great Salt Lake.”
Ben Abbott, professor of ecology at Brigham Young University. One of the lead authors of the BYU report “Emergency measures needed to rescue Great Salt Lake from ongoing collapse.”
Mike Prather, a naturalist at Owens Lake in California.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Terry Tempest Williams joins us today. She’s an author, poet and conservationist. Her writing has been profoundly shaped by her home state of Utah. Her books include “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place” and Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert,” The Hour of Land, A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks,” and “The Moon is Behind Us,” amongst many others.
Tempest Williams was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019. Terry Tempest Williams, welcome to On Point.
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Thank you so much, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: So you grew up in Utah. How far away was the Great Salt Lake from your childhood home?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: The Great Salt Lake was always in view. We lived on a hill. And so everyday walking to school, I would pay my respects.
It was like a silver line of mercury across the horizon. And sunsets were not only revelatory, but reverential. My mother would always clap when the sun went down, and it went down in Great Salt Lake. We thought that’s where the sun was held. And it was a magical place to grow up.
CHAKRABARTI: Always in view. Amazing. Can you tell me more about what it looked like, at the time that you were growing up, if you ever actually went to the lakeshore. What was the lake almost physically like?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Physically, Great Salt Lake was not a vacation spot. Let me just put it that way. As a child, you were influenced by your parents, and my father thought it was a horrible place. But my mother felt responsible that we should see it. We would send postcards with little bags of salt sewn to them. So it was part of our identity, but my mother felt obligated that we have an experience.
And so she loaded up our station wagon with my aunt, I think there were seven of us in the back, very crowded. We drive out to Great Salt Lake. She parks at a particular beach on Antelope Island. We get out. We’re so excited. To us, it’s the ocean. We go running in, screaming thrilled until we start screaming not thrilled. Because children have scrapes and scratches and bruises.
CHAKRABARTI: And it’s salty.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Oh my God. It was like the worst possible thing. We, and they just said now, darlings, float. And so we would, in pain, be on our backs, floating, looking up at the sky. And then you forgot the pain, because you were held, and you really did float. And then we would run back out. Suddenly we were pickled, we were loaded back into the car, and we couldn’t move because we were little salt creatures.
And that was that. We had our initiation. And it really wasn’t until my grandmother gave me a bird book at five. And every night I would study the birds. They became kin. And growing up Mormon, we were raised in a spirit world, first. Meaning before you came to Earth, you had a spirit, and everything in nature had spirits.
Birds were family, and it made sense that if each species, each human being was endowed with, as we were taught, a sphere of influence, then birds had influence, and my grandmother later on, and then throughout the rest of my life, would take me out there, and the birds were, for me, the messengers between earth and heaven.
CHAKRABARTI: So this is the thing about Great Salt Lake in Utah. It’s one of those singular bodies of water that obviously has a great environmental influence on the climates and the ecology around the lake, let alone Salt Lake City. It has a great deal of economic influence, importance as all bodies of water do.
But it also has a profound spiritual importance, as far as I understand, for the LDS Church, which I want to ask you about in a second. But also obviously for the indigenous peoples who were there before Salt Lake City rose up, near the shores of the church. Can you tell me a little bit about what the indigenous peoples of the area, what they believe about the Great Salt Lake?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I can’t.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Because I’m not indigenous.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I know that In terms of indigenous friends, whether it’s from the Diné with Navajo or whether, for example, Jonah Yellowman, who is a spiritual leader of Bears Ears, he talks about how it was a place of pilgrimage. And this is what he would share, they would get salt, because salt was tied to first smile ceremonies, or if you look at an indigenous, excuse me, an indigenous leader, like Darren Perry. It has been central to who they are as Northern Shoshone, but that is their story.
But what I have to tell you is this appreciation of Great Salt Lake is recent. It’s almost like you’ve been living with a family member, and they were an annoyance until you realize they’re going to die or that you come to know them in a way you hadn’t before. And that’s where we are with Great Salt Lake.
Great Salt Lake has not been revered. It has been viewed as wasted water, from beginning with the colonizer, Brigham Young. Great Salt Lake smells. If you go out there and smile, you do not have white teeth. You have brine flies in your teeth. It’s not for the weary. But for those of us who love it and who have known it in a ways of spirit, it is a profoundly spiritual place. And I think that’s what we are coming to celebrate, to know, to protect. And it’s vulnerable. And if Great Salt Lake is vulnerable, we’re vulnerable. And 12 million birds migrating are vulnerable. As are the brine shrimp, brine flies, and the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem.
But it hasn’t always been loved.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, that’s really interesting to know, because your metaphor of getting to know a family member who’s dying or appreciating them. See, it feels exactly right. Because at its peak, I think the Great Salt Lake was more than 3,000 square miles.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: It was crossing freeways.
It was bordering the airport. It was massive. And the Utah legislature has always been completely, Ben Abbott is so gracious. He will not say this, but I will, insane. Do you know what the law was when Great Salt Lake was rising? That the Great Salt Lake could not pass 4,206, in elevation.
And when it did, Great Salt Lake was violating the law. What are you going to do with a body of water that is a lawbreaker? Or another harebrained scheme was, and this is from a scientist, in one of the universities in Utah. Nuke it. That way it would drain.
CHAKRABARTI: Drop a bomb in it?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Yes.
Another one that was my favorite was dye the lake purple. Because it would accelerate evaporation in it. And they found out it would take all the world’s resources of purple dye to do that. But these crazy ideas are still being said in the opposite direction. Now Great Salt Lake is receding, retreating at her record low in November of ’22.
Pipe salt water from the Pacific Ocean. That’s going to take kind of a long time.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) I’m only laughing because people who are familiar with the geography of the West will understand that would be a very long pipe.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: There’s a few mountain ranges they’re going to have to go through. And my family is in the construction business and even they were laughing.
So we have never known what to do with Great Salt Lake. It’s a wilderness adjacent to a city. It’s a body of water in the West that no one can drink. It’s a trickster. And just when you think you have Great Salt Lake figured out, she takes a pivot.
CHAKRABARTI: So the reason why we’re having this conversation today, it’s actually we’re catching up with an issue that’s been alive and very vitally important in Utah for many, for a couple, for many years now.
Because the Great Salt Lake has now dropped down to what I was reading, just a little bit over 900 square miles. So it’s a fraction of what it used to be. And I want to obviously talk in detail a little bit later about what can be done, if anything, to reverse the drying up of this lake.
But I want to go back to one thing, if I could, because first of all, I appreciated how you said the stories of the indigenous peoples of Utah is not your story, so you weren’t going to claim it or communicate it. I actually really deeply appreciate that. But correct me if I’m wrong. I thought that the lake actually played quite an important role in the story of Mormonism, in the story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in terms of when Brigham Young, maybe it wasn’t Brigham Young, but when the Mormon people moved West and decided to settle in Utah.
Am I wrong about that?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: It was Brigham Young.
CHAKRABARTI: It was Brigham Young. Okay. Am I, so am I wrong about that regarding the lake being an important part of that story?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: It’s an important part of the story because it’s an important land feature. You can’t ignore it. But Mormons are practical people. And Brigham Young said, I want, this is the place.
It’s Great Salt Lake’s place and that’s never really acknowledged. And because it’s not water that can be used for agriculture or to drink again, it was viewed as wasted water, but it can be mined. And therefore, we have salt factories. It can, magnesium, lithium. The mining was there.
When you look at the early maps, and it was interesting going to the Harvard Map Room, and really looking at maps from 1700 to present, the dominant feature on the maps as settlement occurred, were the railroads. And so that was, it was important to learn how to traverse it. But I can’t say that it was important to commerce, only that the rivers were dammed or diked or irrigated, created so that the desert could bloom like a rose.
And the church members were innovative people, and before they even settled, they had potatoes in the ground. The alfalfa, this jumps to where we are now. The farming that was the most important thing when the saints came in, it still is. And 80% of the water coming to Great Salt Lake, that doesn’t now come to Great Salt Lake, goes to farming alfalfa that then is exported to other states for cows.
CHAKRABARTI: Terry, Since you are such a beautiful writer and you’ve written so much about Utah and its ecology and spiritual importance, I’m wondering if you could just read something that you’ve written about the lake to us.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Of course. Thank you, Meghna.
“I am searching for grace. If the facts don’t matter anymore and misinformation does, if we fail to listen to the indigenous wisdom of First Nations and remain unmoved toward another way of being in right relationship to Earth.
And the stories and statistics that scientists are bringing to us do not stir us to action on behalf of a living world that is suffering. And if the lives of our children and the future of their children’s children are not first in our minds and thwarting the easy sleep of our privilege. Then the question must be asked, are we too dead to the world to feel alive?
Believe the long-legged birds who are circling above us, desperately looking for water. Believe the forests that are burning, whose surviving trees will later stand as sentinels, charred, witnesses to animal bodies reduced to ash. Believe in flash floods roaring through burnt canyons, gathering debris in rivers running black, in the desert, even in times of drought.
Believe Great Salt Lake is retreating in plain sight, leaving what’s left to the dust devils whipping up clouds of chemicals resting on the dry lakebed as we inhale the toxic world we have created. Believe in the once shimmering bodies of water on the horizon that are now nothing more than a mirage made of heat waves, death dancing on the salt flats.
Believe in the silences. Before we can save this world we are losing, we must first learn how to savor what remains. This is more than an ecological crisis or a political crisis. It is a spiritual one. The earth will survive us. We are the ones being baptized by fire.”
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Terry Tempest Williams. And what is that from?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: It’s from a little book called The Wings of Herons. It’s called Believe.
CHAKRABARTI: Thank you so much for reading that to us. With that sort of core spiritual challenge, I’d say, that the current state of the Great Salt Lake poses for, I suppose all humanity, but especially Utahns, I’d like to bring Ben Abbott into the conversation.
He’s a professor of ecology at Brigham Young University and one of the lead authors of a BYU report titled “Emergency Measures Needed to Rescue Great Salt Lake from Ongoing Collapse.” And he joins us from Provo, Utah. Professor Abbott, welcome to On Point.
BEN ABBOTT: Hi Meghna, thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So what evidence is there, describe the evidence that you and your collaborators have seen that leads to this very sobering conclusion that the lake might disappear in just five years.
ABBOTT: This is a unique environmental crisis, because we can see it directly play out, right? We have really good measurements of lake level over the past more than a century. And we know how much water is getting to the lake through the rivers. And so we’re watching this slow-motion train wreck, the disappearance of Great Salt Lake.
And unfortunately, this is not the first time we’ve seen this movie. There are about 120 of these large saline lakes, all around the world, and over a hundred of them are in structural decline. And as Terry mentioned, none of them, once they slip into this state of decline, have been restored.
And so this is really one of, one of the earth’s greatest unsolved ecological problems, right up there with human loss of life from air pollution and climate change.
CHAKRABARTI: Terry had said earlier that you could see the lake as you flew into Salt Lake City, for example. For many people who aren’t native to Utah or have lived there for a long time, that may be the closest they’ve ever been to the lake, include myself among them. But every time I had seen it, it just seemed to be this, she used the word mercury, but this shimmering wake of wonder that greets you as you enter Utah.
CHAKRABARTI: So this is why when your report and the news coverage around the rapid potential total disappearance of the lake, five years is just a shockingly short period of time. It’s very shocking to me.
ABBOTT: And we should be clear, right? That number I think was criticized and also misunderstood in both directions. Because what we did was we looked at the rate of decline since 2020. Our hydrological models expected that as the lake gets smaller and saltier, the rate of evaporation tends to decrease.
So that’s a very strong stabilizing feedback, but that’s not what happened. It accelerated since 2020. And part of this is because we just had no measurements at this lake stage, at this elevation. And so just like the human body is going to react in unexpected ways when it’s put in a new situation, the same thing has happened with the lake.
We think that has to do with groundwater and the fact that human water demand stays quite steady, regardless of what’s available.
CHAKRABARTI: Wait, can I just jump in, Professor, if you don’t mind?
ABBOTT: Yeah, please.
CHAKRABARTI: So is what you’re saying is that beforehand there were no comparable high elevation inland salt lakes, so you couldn’t fully accurately predict what would happen as the lake level went down?
Is that right?
ABBOTT: I’m saying for Great Salt Lake itself, we had never observed it at that elevation.
CHAKRABARTI: I see.
ABBOTT: So it’s much, much smaller a new climate, right? We’re living through this mega drought in the Southwest. And so we were just extrapolating before about what, how the lake would behave at this stage.
And so when we crunched those numbers and saw that we were looking at five years, if the rate of decline continued until the lake was gone, the actual collapse, the ecosystem happens long before that. The brine shrimp and brine flies that support the 12 million birds, the salts and water that supports industry in the region and protects the population from toxic dust.
Those things are gone long before the last salty puddle evaporates, right? We’re facing those now. And even once the lake gets up to what we call its minimum healthy level, which is five or six feet above where it is today, at that point, even half of the toxic dust is still exposed. And so we need to be thinking about supporting the lake and restoring the lake, not simply stabilizing it or putting it on life support.
CHAKRABARTI: So there’s a lot of questions I want to explore with you about what’s driving this, more about those what’s in the salts, et cetera. But with this image of a rapidly receding lake in our minds, Terry, have you, you’ve recently walked along, what, the edge of the lake now, lake as it is now, I think you were in Salt Lake City actually just a couple of days ago.
What did you see?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I’ve never seen the lake so beautiful. And it reminded me when my mother was dying. We saw her essence. I feel like we’re seeing the essence of Great Salt Lake. The light, because it’s so shallow now and the horizon is a shimmering line of salt. I’ve never seen it so beautiful.
The colors, the palette, the pastels, the reflection. It’s like it’s in high relief.
CHAKRABARTI: You’re putting this, you’re using the language of like spectral beauty here, but.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: That’s what it feels. I think that’s a really great way of putting it. And the birds, you see each individual bird, the species are there, but the numbers aren’t.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: So I would say it’s a quality of turquoise to the water. It’s a quality of light that I’ve never seen. Ben, do you feel that way?
ABBOTT: It’s absolutely spectacular. Yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: But I’m wondering, as Ben was saying, the ecological changes are already happening, right? We don’t have to wait until the last drop dries up.
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: No. And, last January, a year ago, Nan Seymour, who’s a wonderful poet, and is holding vigil at the state capitol as we speak. We were walking along Buffalo Bay, and we started counting dead grebes, eared grebes, and we didn’t speak. We were walking with space between us, and we started counting the birds.
By the time we got to 464 dead eared grebes in less than a quarter of a mile, we stopped counting. That’s the other side. Grief is love. Love is grief. And the full spectrum, to use your word, is apparent.
CHAKRABARTI: Did it also attack other senses? Because it’s a salt lake, right?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: The smell was devastating. The smell of death is not something you want to face.
Why did the birds die? They were weakened. It was the lowest point of the lake in November. They probably left late and were slapped down by a winter storm. So it’s all interconnected, interrelated.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay, so we better, obviously we must dig in to why this is happening. So Professor Abbott, an easy place to look would be just to Salt Lake City itself, right?
It’s been rapidly growing for quite some time. Is the growing population of that part of Utah one of the drivers for the reduction of the lake itself?
ABBOTT: It’s really interesting and it’s a little bit of a paradox, the maximum consumptive water use actually was back in the 1990s.
And since that time, even though the population of Utah has doubled, consumptive water use has slightly declined. So this isn’t a story of an acute crisis right now that was caused by a recent change. It’s a story of a century of living unsustainably.
ABBOTT: Of taking too much water.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so that gains, has its own momentum that conservation efforts once started, take some time to catch up with. Point well taken on that, obviously anyone who’s in the West listening right now is probably waiting for us to ask about agriculture, right? Because so much of water in the West, I mean of the vast majority of it in certain states is used for agriculture in California, something like 80%.
ABBOTT: That’s right.
CHAKRABARTI: But this is, the Great Salt Lake is salted, so it’s not that water per se that’s being used for agriculture, or is it? Correct me here.
ABBOTT: Yeah. I love Terry, how you mentioned the lake is a trickster. The lake is a salt lake that depends on fresh water to survive.
So it needs to have fresh water that’s coming into it. The salt amount stays approximately the same through time. And so the issue is we’re diverting the rivers that would be sustaining the lake, which are freshwater, to irrigate crops, primarily alfalfa and about 80% of the consumptive water use in the Great Salt Lake watershed goes to agriculture, about 10% goes to cities and about 10% goes to mineral extraction. The mining that Terry was talking about. So we estimate that we need about a third to a half of reduction in that water consumption to get to a sustainable place.
And you can express this differently. If we don’t want to change our water consumption, then we need to have 140% of normal precipitation every year after year, to keep the lake healthy. And that’s not going to happen, right? We’re having less runoff than we have in the past.
CHAKRABARTI: This mega drought that you’ve been talking about.
ABBOTT: That’s right.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So I’m trying to, I’m trying to keep the stakeholders, if I can use that overused phrase, in mind. And now we’ve brought mining and agriculture into the picture. But in terms of the public health effects that could worsen, what exactly is it on the lake?
I guess it’s like evaporation or the putting of more dust from the lakebed into the air that is potentially damaging to human health. Why is that?
ABBOTT: So these lakes, since they don’t have an outlet to the ocean, through over thousands of years, they accumulate anything that’s weathering out of the mountains.
And you tell like many areas in the West is very rich in different minerals. Some of those minerals are very useful. Some of them are very toxic. If we look at the concentrations of arsenic and mercury in the lakebed, they’re extremely high and add that natural process.
If we add the fact that we’ve been burning coal for over a century in this region, then that atmospheric deposition of these toxins accumulates. Just a few months ago, we learned that the cyanobacteria that thrive in the moist lakebed produce very powerful toxins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and ALS.
So the dust on its own is already damaging to our bodies. And if we add onto it, all of these toxins, we simply have to maintain the lake. And this shows how there is no separation between the health of our home, the environment around us and our personal health, right? We are a part of the ecosystem and the only way to make sure that we are healthy at an individual and cultural level is to care for our home.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And this public health potential impact, I think many physicians around Utah recently signed a quite strongly worded letter to the state government saying, this problem is coming unless we do something now. We’ll talk in the last third of the show about solutions here. But Terry, how would you describe the broader awareness, not just in Salt Lake City, but maybe in that part of Utah as a whole, about the perilous state that the lake is in?
TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I think it is getting global attention because it is a global issue, as Ben has said. And I think what’s happening in our community, in our state, is happening in every state, in different ways. So where do you locate your own Great Salt Lake and place your body on the line to protect and sustain those places that make living where we live worth living? And I think Ben and I were so heartened, as was so many of our allies. On Saturday, we had a huge rally, 1,200 people showed up on the States of the Capitol, which is a big deal.
And most of them were young people. Many of them were from marginalized communities along the edge of Great Salt Lake who will face the most severe repercussions. Many of them were dressed like the species who live in Great Salt Lake that couldn’t be there.
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