Great Salt Lake is a unique problem among vanishing lakes, scientist says
The Great Salt Lake is drying up, leaving large swaths of lakebed uncovered. The dirt contains toxins that can become air-borne, posing a health and environmental problem.
USU Associate Professor of Watershed Sciences, Janice Brahney, has been studying Great Salt Lake dust since 2017.
“I think we reached a really significant low point in the lake’s perimeter exposing about 50% of the lakebed area. And so I think at that point there was rising concern about what was happening with the lake. So I started shortly thereafter, trying to understand what the implications might be with the dust coming off the lakebed,” Brahney said.
The Great Salt Lake is a terminal basin, meaning whatever flows into it stays there. The chemicals of decades of industry accumulate, are stored in the dirt, and held in by an airtight lid of water. But what happens when that lid evaporates?
“There are many other desiccating salt lakes around the world that are also terminal basins, and also capturing a lot of toxins from their watershed. But the Great Salt Lake is the only one that has a major urban center in the watershed. So that not only contributes a lot of pollutants and toxins into the basin, but also means that those people are then exposed to the dust when it does get emitted,” said Brahney.
Brahney and her team are measuring the amount of heavy metals, organic compounds, and cyanotoxins contained in the newly uncovered dirt. Brahney says that for now, the hard surface crust of the lakebed is largely keeping the dust in, but as that protective crust erodes the toxic dust can be picked up by the wind and carried far and wide. Unlike other lakes, the Great Salt Lake is extremely flat, a unique contributor to the urgency of the problem.
“The flatness of the basin shape means that one foot drop in the water level can expose a vast area. If the lake was much deeper, if it had steep sides, one foot might not expose that much playa, but because of how shallow it is it doesn't take very much of a loss of water to expose a lot of playa, and I think that is what has become more extreme in recent years,” Brahney said.
In addition to reaching highly populated areas, Brahney says the toxin laden-dust can travel up to the mountains, infiltrate the snowpack, and in turn the water systems. Another question Brahney’s lab is trying to answer is whether heavy metals carried by dust and deposited onto private gardens and crops can end up in food.
This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.