Utah Lawmakers Consider Measures to Save Great Salt Lake

    10 February 2022

    The Great Salt Lake, America's largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River, has reached its lowest levels in recorded history. Officials and lawmakers in Utah say the state needs to take serious measures to prevent further drops in lake levels.

    The current state of the Great Salt Lake follows severe dry conditions affecting Utah and other western states. Water has also been taken from the lake to supply homes and crops in Utah, one of the nation's fastest growing states. Utah is also one of the driest American states, but has high water usage rates.

    The severe drop in lake levels has raised concerns in the state about harmful dust, environmental damage and economic problems.

    Antelope Island State Park visitors view the the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, at Antelope Island, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
    Antelope Island State Park visitors view the the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, at Antelope Island, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

    Further water loss is expected to present serious risks to millions of migrating birds. It could also hurt a lake-based economy estimated to be worth $1.3 billion. Economic activities include the production of minerals and brine shrimp and recreation. Health experts also fear that a dry lakebed could send poisonous dust into the air that millions of people breathe.

    Utah Governor Spencer Cox has proposed spending $46 million to help solve the Great Salt Lake problems. Top lawmakers have also supported major spending to improve lake conditions.

    One proposal would seek to restrict water use in homes and businesses. Another would pay farmers for sharing their water. A third would direct money from mineral production activities to programs aimed at improving the lake.

    "I long took for granted the lake. It's always been there, and I've assumed it always would be there," House speaker Brad Wilson told a special meeting held to discuss the issue. But learning about the lake's worsening position over the summer left him afraid. "The Great Salt Lake is in trouble. ... We have to do something," Wilson said.

    Zach Frankel is director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council. He told The Associated Press he thinks major action is needed in order to save the Great Salt Lake. "It's not going to do it with baby steps. These are tiny baby steps that should have been taken 20 years ago," Frankel said.

    The lower lake levels have led to reductions in underwater structures that contain microorganisms that brine shrimp depend on for food.

    The shrimp support a multimillion-dollar industry that supplies food for fish farms. It also provides nutrients to millions of migrating birds that can show up on radar. The Great Salt Lake is also the nation's biggest source of magnesium and could soon provide lithium, a key mineral for making batteries.

    But last year the lake matched a 170-year record low and kept dropping. It hit a new low of 1,277.2 meters in October. As a result, a large amount of the microorganisms necessary for the health of brine shrimp were damaged by air. The die-off will likely take years to repair even if they are fully covered with water again, said Michael Vanden Berg. He is a Utah state geologist.

    If the water levels continue to drop, the lake could get too salty for the microorganisms to survive. This has already happened in the bright pink waters of the lake's northern arm.

    Still, Vanden Berg is still hopeful about the southern arm, where a part of the microorganisms did survive last year's lake drop. "It's bad but not catastrophic yet," he said. "There is still time to fix and mitigate the situation."

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English.

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    Words in This Story

    recreation – n. activities people do for enjoyment when they are not working

    take for granted – phr. to believe that something is true without checking or thinking about it

    assume – v. to believe that something might be true, although you have no proof to support the belief

    battery – n. a device that provides and stores electricity for things

    catastrophic – adj. causing a lot of suffering or destruction

    mitigate – v. to reduce the harmful effects of something