Last year, I wrote a series of articles about a major problem Utah is going to face: The Salt Lake is becoming less Great all the time. If things don’t change soon enough, the most populated part of the state will face toxic dust clouds and a loss of lake effect snows, which will further dry the place out.
While I know CleanTechnica isn’t the most popular publication around, I do know that many, many other news outlets and scientific groups have been warning the state about its water issues. Sadly, things have not changed, and the lake is at yet another record low.
The Long-Term Dry-Up
If you look at the satellite view on Google Maps or Google Earth, you can see that the lake has a lot of white ground around it. While all of that white ground isn’t from recent dry-up (the prehistoric lake was much bigger, but we’ll get to that in a minute), you can see in this video by Google that it has dried up significantly since the 1980s.
At that time, several years of record runoff and much lower area populations than today meant the lake got really, really full. It was higher than it had ever been since measurements were first taken in the 1800s, and not only industry, but other property owners on the sides of the lake were starting to have some serious problems with flooding. Interstate 80 was even in danger of being lost to the lake.
So, the state decided to take action. They spent millions building a pumping station to remove water from the lake and into an adjacent dry basin for evaporation. This started to lower the levels a bit, but then the natural runoff from the mountains reduced and people used more water, and lake levels lowered to safer levels. But, the water kept getting lower. And lower. And lower.
At this point, the lake could be stabilized and its levels raised to healthier levels, but it would require sacrifice. The lake is at the bottom of an endorheic basin, or a basin in which water doesn’t flow out to the ocean. All of its water comes from regional mountains, which get their water from snowfall.
Between the mountains and the lake are many of Utah’s cities, which need water not only for drinking and agriculture, but for their laws and landscaping. When people take too much of the water, the lake levels go down. When people let more water flow into the lake, its levels go up. So, it’s really a matter of using less water and letting more of it “go to waste” in the salty lake.
What Happens If They Let It Dry Up?
If that doesn’t happen, there will be serious consequences for the state.
First off, there’s the problem of the dust in the bottom of the basin. Once it dries up, it’s easy for winds to pick it up and carry it into the cities and mountains. In this 2012 NASA satellite image, you can see the dried up remnants of prehistoric Lake Bonneville doing exactly this.
The prehistoric lake, which covers much of the state, is a much bigger version of today’s Great Salt Lake. During the last ice age (or, in more scientific terms, the last glacial period), greater snowpack led to it being so big and deep that the present site of Salt Lake City was under hundreds of feet of water. Glaciers in the mountain even calved icebergs into the lake. But, the lake found a weak spot at Red Rock Pass in Idaho, and the lake suddenly drained about 17,000 years ago (possibly due to an earthquake and lake tsunami that pummeled the weak spot).
The most recent episode of a large lake happened much more recently, with lake levels up about 50 feet higher than the modern average. This lake covered much of the white areas you’ll see on Google Maps, and the area that dust blows from today.
While parts of the state near the dried up parts of the bigger ice age lake get dust, they don’t get the other things that come from drying up a lake that has coexisted with industry and widespread agriculture. Fertilizers, arsenic, and many other things people don’t want in their lungs will all end up in the air.
The other problem from a smaller lake is a feedback loop. Without the larger lake to produce lake effect snow, there’s less water in the rivers, and that leads to less water going back into the lake. So, the problem will not only accelerate towards a complete dry-up, but it will leave the people who took too much water from the rivers with less water and less tourism from skiers.
Clean Technology Can “Prime The Pump”
The obvious thing that needs to happen is less water usage, but people need water to live, so we can’t just let it all run into the lake to fill it back up to its average modern levels. There does need to be a balance between people and nature.
The best thing we can do is get people in Utah to think about this in terms of an old video Mormons used to show in church: The Pump.
In the short film, a man tries to take a shortcut through the desert, and gets stranded when his car breaks down. He comes across an abandoned town and sees a little well. He doesn’t get any water when he tries to pump it, but finds a note explaining that you can get the leather seal of the well working and then get water if you first pour some water into it. The note tells the guy where to find a bottle of water to do just that.
Instead of giving up some water to get the pump going, the man just takes the bottle along, and ends up thirsting to death in the desert.
The Salt Lake is much the same. Give it some water by leaving some in the rivers, and it’ll give you some back with the lake effect snow. Drink all of the water in the rivers, and you end up with nothing.
The biggest problem is public policy.
Cheap water is good politics, but it’s also encouraging wasteful use on things that people don’t really need for their survival. By giving a cheaper price for essential water and then higher prices for water beyond what people need for drinking and flushing the toilet, you can encourage responsible use.
Another problem the New York Times identified was HOAs. One man tried to get rid of his lawn, but then got a letter from his local busybody Karens threatening fines and eventual foreclosure. The state legislature could fix this easily by banning HOAs from requiring watered and green laws.
With proper pricing and no idiotic legal barriers, clean technology can take over. Xeriscaping has long been used in the Southwest to curb water usage, and gives us a great option. Water recycling is another great thing that can save water for the lake (it isn’t picky about whether the water is reclaimed). More efficient systems in homes and businesses, like low-flow toilets or composting toilets could save even more water. It’s also a great idea to not encourage the use of evaporative (“swamp”) coolers, like they do here.
But, getting people to adopt more efficient water technology is the biggest problem, and it’s one that’s going to require telling people more of what they need to hear and less of what they want to hear.
The only alternative is even more wasteful things, like a pipeline from the Pacific ocean to fill the lake with ocean water.
Featured image: A 1987 satellite photo by the US Geological Service showing the Great Salt Lake at its modern maximum. Note the area west of the lake where the Pumping Station deposited water to lower lake levels (public domain).
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