The American West is experiencing its driest period in human history, a megadrought that threatens health, agriculture and entire ways of life. DRIED UP is examining the dire effects of the drought on the states most affected — as well as the solutions Americans are embracing.
Air pollution in Salt Lake City was so bad last year it set off the fire alarms in Elizabeth Joy’s clinic.
Joy, a family and sports medicine doctor, said that her patients had to be evacuated as part of the emergency response.
Yet in sending the patients outside, the alarms actually put people in an even more dangerous position given the city’s air quality at the time — which wasjudgedto be the worst in the worldon that particular day.
“They moved people outside where they stood for 45 minutes,” said Joy, a former chairwoman of the Utah Clean Air Partnership. “They evacuated the clinic, not knowing, initially, that it was actually the outdoor air pollution that set off the fire alarms in our building.”
Cars and wildfires contribute to Utah’s air pollution, but the Great Salt Lake is a less obvious but important contributor. Sitting just northwest of Salt Lake City, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere is drying upbecause of water use and drought amid a changing climate, sending dust with toxic metals — including arsenic — in the air of a metro area with approximately 1.2 million people.
Particle pollution in the air has been linked to asthma, heart attacks, worsened lung function and premature death.
People walk on a section of the Great Salt Lake that used to be underwater on August 02, 2021 near Magna, Utah. Getty Images
Utah is hardly alone in experiencing air pollution resulting from bodies of water drying up amid climate change.
Similar issues are playing out near California’s Salton Sea, where the drying sea is also kicking up dust. Across the world, Iran’s salty Lake Urmia has also beenshrinking, as has Africa’sLake Chadandthe Caspian Seabetween Europe and Asia.
Carly Ferro, the director of the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, said that on a particularly dusty day, the mountains typically visible near her home disappear, and “you can almost taste” the dust.
“It really does impact all of the senses,” she said. “Your eyes — not only visibly see it, but it also can burn.”
In the Salton Sea area, Mariela Loera, a policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said that respiratory problems plague many families.
In the Salt Lake City area, heavy metals including arsenic are also being found in the dust from the lake. The Environmental Protection Agencyhas saidthat inhaling arsenic may cause lung cancer, as well as skin, cardiovascular and neurological effects.
Kevin Perry, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Utah who hasstudied the dust coming from the lake,said that he views the general dust issue as a more immediate problem, describing the toxic metals as more of a “long-term” concern.
For the toxic dust, “it takes decades … of exposure in order to manifest itself in health issues and so it’s a long term concern,” Perry said. “If the lake remains low for decades and the surface continues to pump dust into the communities, then we’ll eventually start to see impacts.“
“What I’m more concerned about are these short duration plumes that come off the lake that impact people’s health immediately,” he added.
Joy said the toxic metals issue leaves the public with a lot of uncertainty.
“[Arsenic] can have system-wide effects on the human body, the heart, the brain, the [gastrointestinal] systems, your lungs, your nervous system,” she said. “But in terms of arsenic in the air combined with other forms of air pollution, I think the effect it has on the human body largely remains unknown.”
Water use is a big part of Utah’s problem
A combination of drought and water usage are causing the Great Salt Lake’s water level to plummet, exposing more of the lake-bed and releasing more dust.
Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a professor emeritus of watershed sciences at Utah State University, said a combination of human activity and drought has left half of the lake gone.
The lake has amaximum depthof 35 feet, the state division of water resources says, but according to Wurtsbaugh’s research, water use alone has shaved off 11 feet and reduced the lake’s volume by 48 percent.
“That’s about half the volume of the lake, and it exposed about 50 percent of the lakebed,” Wurtsbaugh said. “A lot of that is creating the dust problems.”
A white paper written by Wurtsbaugh and other researchers has sought to estimate how various uses of water have contributed to the lake’s shrinkage. They estimate thatamong the causes of the water loss are agriculture (responsible for 7 feet),mining operations (1.4 feet)and municipal and industrial uses (1.3 feet).
One major water use item is hay: a water intensive crop that’s used to feed cattle. Gabriel Lozada, an associate professor of economics at the University of Utahestimatesthat hay represents 68 percent of the state’s water use while making up just 0.2 percent of its GDP.
“From a society’s point of view, this doesn’t make any sense,” Lozada said.
“Water is valuable, but currently, we don’t treat it that way. We don’t assign it the value that it deserves,” he said.
Both Lozada and Wurtsbaugh suggested that paying farmers not to grow the crop is one possible solution.
“In a decade you could probably get a good share of that water back,” Wurtsbaugh said.
Agricultural interests disagree, noting that while hay itself only makes up a small portion of the area’s GDP, it’s important for the local livestock industry.
“When we talk about using that agricultural water for alfalfa, we need to not be thinking about ‘we’re using it for one crop’ we need to be thinking about all the implications that that one crop has,” said Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.
“That one crop turns into milk, it turns into beef, it turns into pork,” Gibson said.
He disagreed with suggestions that farmers should be paid not to grow hay, saying it would raise the price of feed for other farmers.
“That kind of program right there would be a javelin in the heart to agriculture in the state of Utah,” Gibson said.
Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, pointed to the state’s “use it or lose it” water rights laws — which incentivize farmers to use as much water as possible so that they don’t lose their rights in the future — as another contributor to the problem.
A chair sits on an exposed sand bar on the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake on March 3, 2022 near Salt Lake City, Utah. Utah lawmakers passed a $40 million proposal through the state Senate that would pay water rights holders to conserve and fund habitat restoration to prevent the lake from shrinking further. Associated Press-Rick Bowmer
She and others cited a new state law that allows farmers and other water rights holders to rent out their water for other uses — including for lease by conservation groups who want to return water to the lake — as one way the state is addressing the issue.
But she said, more work is needed, including changes in how water is used by industry and the general public.
“We have a lot of work to do to reduce the way that we consume water in our municipal and industrial operations,” she said. “We’ve got to figure out how we can educate the public and engage them in being a part of this solution by using less water overall.”
Wurtsbaugh also raised concerns about the area’s growing population, noting that more people means more water use.
A Januaryprojectionfrom the University of Utah found that by 2060, the state’s population is expected to grow by 66 percent from where it was in 2020.
“There’s a big effort to get people to have smaller lawns … or just don’t quite make them quite as green or overwater,” he said “Even if we save on a per capita 30 percent and we increase the population 30 percent … we’re right where we are now. That population growth is something that needs to be dealt with.”
Drought also plays a role, and Utah state climatologist Robert Gillies said that climate change worsens the problem.
“It’s not directly causing the drought. Droughts have been in our past,” Gillies said. “But there’s no doubt about it: climate change is altering the trajectory of storms, it’s altering the magnitude of these storms.”
He said specifically that precipitation in the area that would have fallen as snow in the past is now more likely to fall as rain, which contributes to drier conditions.
“We rely on that snow to melt slowly into the soil and then down into the aquifers, and we draw that water from the aquifers for our irrigation, for our municipal and for our industrial needs,” Gillies said.
Different state, similar problems
People who live near Southern California’s Salton Sea are facing similar challenges.
The Salton Sea is fed by a few rivers, as well as runoff from local agriculture. Ryan Sinclair, an associate professor at Loma Linda University, said that the Salton Sea is being shrunk by an agreement to divert water.
An irrigation pond is viewed near an agricultural field with the shrinking Salton Sea in the distance on July 12, 2022 near Mecca, California. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 97 percent of the state of California’s land area is in at least severe drought status, with nearly 60 percent in at least extreme drought. California is now in a third consecutive year of drought amid a climate-change fueled megadrought in the Southwestern United States. Getty Images
Some water that would have flowed into the Salton Sea was diverted instead to San Diego.
“We did have water flowing in from the Colorado River,” Sinclair said. “That stopped with the quantification settlement agreement.”
That 2003agreement,aimed at reducing California’s dependence on the Colorado River, transferred water out of the Imperial Valley that otherwise was expected to flow into the Salton Sea.
“The water balance is now that there’s not enough to maintain the level, so now the water level is shrinking,” he added.
As the water level shrinks, more of the seabed is exposed, sending dust into the air.
David Lo, senior associate dean for research at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine, said in the Salton Sea area, the dust’s composition appears to be part of the problem.
Lo conducted research in which mice were exposed to both general dust and dust from the Salton Sea. He said that when exposed from dust near the Salton Sea, the mice experienced lung inflammation.
“We’re now trying to figure out, if it’s from the Salton Sea, well what’s in there?” Lo said.
Lo said in lab studies the mice appear to be experiencing an atypical type of asthma, which the body treats more like a bacterial infection. He added that if people are also experiencing this atypical asthma, it’s not clear whether there are different symptoms, but it’s something he’d like to study further.
It’s also not clear whether typical treatments, like inhalers, are working, he added.
“This community is immigrant, Mexican agriculture workers. Many of them are undocumented, so actually many of them don’t have insurance, so they don’t see doctors for diagnosis, they go see family in Mexico and inhalers are cheap there,” he said.
As the water level of the Salton Sea shrinks, more of the seabed is exposed, sending dust into the air.Associated Press-Marcio Jose Sanchez
“So you can just go see family, get an inhaler because you think that’s what they need, but nobody’s doing the clinical study” to determine whether they actually help, he added.
Sinclair said that many residents have also reported bloody noses.
“There’s some other documents about bloody noses and having this sort of severe bloody nose issue that comes up in children around the Salton Sea,” he said. “It’s something that all the community members I’ve talked to — everybody says it.”
As hotter temperatures caused by climate change cause more lakes to dry up, people all over the world could face similar problems. “There are going to be similar impacts in other communities affected by increasing temperatures, drying lakes, increasing dust emissions,” Lo said.
Previously in this series:
Texas cities in fear of running out of water
Texas cattle industry faces existential crisis from historic drought
Lakes Mead and Powell are at the epicenter of the biggest Western drought in history
Seven stats that explain the West’s epic drought
Why Great Plains agriculture is particularly vulnerable to drought
Five reasons extreme weather is bigger in Texas
If the Great Salt Lake continues to dry up, it means that the lake's flies and brine shrimp won't be able to survive due to the potentially inedible algae. It will also impact the millions of migratory birds that depend on the lake as a resource in the midst of their migration.Is Utah's Great Salt Lake drying up? ›
The Great Salt Lake is drying up. Climate change is responsible.How did Utah lake get polluted? ›
Raw sewage was dumped into the lake as late as 1967. Pollution problems still remain; the lake's phosphorus and mineral salt levels are in violation of the Clean Water Act. In recent years, the lake has been prone to harmful algal blooms or HABs.When did the Great Salt Lake dry up? ›
At the end of their first year of operation, the pumps had removed about 500,000 acre-feet (620,000,000 m3) of water from the Great Salt Lake. The project was shut down in June 1989, as the level of the lake had dropped by nearly six feet (1.8 meters) since reaching its peak levels during June 1986 and March 1987.What happens when a lake dries up? ›
Salts originally dissolved in the water precipitate out and are left behind, gradually building up over time. A dry lake appears as a flat bed of clay, generally encrusted with precipitated salts. These evaporite minerals are a concentration of weathering products such as sodium carbonate, borax, and other salts.What activity was going on at the dry salt lake? ›
Answer: On the dry salt lake, salt mining was going on. Labourers were breaking the salt plates with their pickaxes and shovels and then the trucks were taking them off.Why is the Great Salt Lake so polluted? ›
The soil contains arsenic, antimony, copper, zirconium and other dangerous heavy metals, much of it residue from mining activity in the region. Most of the exposed soil is still protected by a hard crust. But as wind erodes the crust over time, those contaminants become airborne.Can we save the Great Salt Lake? ›
While 1/3 of the lake's microbialite structures are now dried out and dead, many more still survive underwater and it's not too late to save them or our Great Salt Lake.Is the dust from the Great Salt Lake toxic? ›
One large impact of this ecological crisis is the increasing prevalence of dust storms spreading toxins from the lake. As the lakebed becomes more exposed, a stiff breeze can kick up remnants of mining and other human activities, meaning nearby residents could be breathing dangerous metals like arsenic and copper.What is the main cause of lake pollution? ›
Pollution enters water bodies in a number of ways, including industrial and municipal discharge, runoff, spills, and deposition of airborne pollutants. It is easy to dispose of waste by dumping it into a river or lake.
Like much of the country, the primary air pollutants of concern in Utah are ozone and particulate matter (PM).What happens if a lake is polluted? ›
How does pollution affect lakes? Regardless of the source, pollution can disrupt aquatic life in many ways. In general, pollution reduces water quality. It can also reduce the diversity of wildlife, especially sensitive species (see bioindicators section to learn more).Why did the lake start to dry up? ›
The increase in global warming causes the lakes, rivers and wells to dry up. More water evaporated into the air. As the irrigation increases, the water in the lakes, rivers and wells gets used more and more. This can lead to drying up of the whole lakes and rivers.Is the Great Salt Lake really salt water? ›
Great Salt Lake is salty because it does not have an outlet. Tributary rivers are constantly bringing in small amounts of salt dissolved in their fresh water flow. Once in the Great Salt Lake much of the water evaporates leaving the salt behind.What is it called when lakes dry up? ›
Also known as a playa, a dry lake occurs as a depression with a dry lake bed where evaporation leads to drying up of a standing surface body.Why do you think lakes are drying up what could be done to save them? ›
The main cause for the drying up of the lake is drought caused by climate change impacting the inflow to the lake – resulting in a 65% reduction in water levels. Increased diversion for irrigated agriculture, the building of dams and reduced rainfall over the lake's surface, are also named as contributing factors.What happens if Lake Mead dries up 2022? ›
Skyrocketing costs for urban users of what little water and power is still available could cause mass migrational population shifts. Real estate values could plummet. The “dead pool” of Lake Mead could transform parts of the Southwest into “dead zones.”What is the message of the Chapter Silk Road? ›
Answer:Silk Road summary is about the author's journey which starts from slopes of Ravu to Mt. Kailash. This was to complete the kora. Thus, it gives us an account of the journey they experience.What is the type of pollution? ›
The three major types of pollution are air pollution, water pollution, and land pollution.Why can't you swim in the Great Salt Lake? ›
Most simply forsake the lake in the summer when the brine flies are thickest. Year-round, though — and there are swimmers who take to the lake no matter how cold the air and the water — the salt is painfully corrosive on bare skin. "It's almost like sandpaper rubbing against you," Gridley explains.
Could a tsunami roar out of the Great Salt Lake? Believe it or not, an earthquake-generated tsunami apparently did whip the lake into 12-foot waves in 1909. Another quake in 1934 may or may not have generated significant wave action.Do any creatures live in the Great Salt Lake? ›
The Great Salt Lake is home to many important biological and wildlife species, from archaea, to bacteria, to phytoplankton (400+ species). Perhaps the three most apparent species that can be seen with the naked eye are brine shrimp (tons), brine flies (billions) and birds (millions).Who owns the Great Salt Lake? ›
In the 1880s, Salt Lake County Probate Judge Uriah Wenner and his family used Fremont Island as a retreat for tuberculosis. Judge Wenner eventually purchased a majority of the island, and was buried there after his death in 1891. Today, the island is owned by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.What is the smell at the Great Salt Lake? ›
The heavy brine traps organic material (i.e., algae and plant and animal remains) and gases at the bottom of the lake. When the bottom of the lake gets stirred up, lots of bubbles rise to the surface. The bubbles release the gas that forms from the decaying organic matter, and this gas smells anything but pleasant.Does Great Salt Lake have sharks? ›
Are there sharks in the Great Salt Lake? No. No sharks live in the Great Salt Lake. The only animals that do live in it are brine shrimp—which are so tiny about all they are good for is feeding saltwater fish in aquariums.What are the 3 main source of water pollution? ›
The main point source of pollution to water is from sewage and waste water treatment, while for diffuse pollution, main sources are from farming and fossil fuel power plants (via the air).Why is Utah so polluted? ›
While poor air quality in Utah is concentrated due to the mountainous topography which can cause pollutants to build up near the surface (especially during inversions) the source of harmful pollutants is primarily industrial (several silica mines, refineries, coal-fired power plants, and massive open pit mining ...How can we reduce air pollution in Utah? ›
- Be Idle Free:
- Combine Trips:
- Avoid Short Trips:
- Don't Warm Up a Vehicle:
- Use Public Transit:
New Delhi: Despite a ban on firecrackers, the air quality in Delhi on Diwali was recorded in the 'very poor' category, making it the most polluted city in the world. According to a report, the national capital was the most polluted city in the world on Monday (October 24, 2022), followed by Pakistan's Lahore.How can we solve the problem of water pollution? ›
- Pick up litter and throw it away in a garbage can.
- Blow or sweep fertilizer back onto the grass if it gets onto paved areas. ...
- Mulch or compost grass or yard waste. ...
- Wash your car or outdoor equipment where it can flow to a gravel or grassy area instead of a street.
Water pollution is the cause of many human diseases, mainly diarrhoea, skin diseases, cancer and various childhood diseases.Where does water go when it dries up? ›
When a puddle dries up, tiny particles of water break away from the liquid in the puddle and go into the air. The tiny water particles are called water molecules. Water on the ground goes into the air, becomes part of a cloud, and comes back down to Earth as rain.What man made lake is drying up? ›
The lake is actually a reservoir made by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. It is the largest reservoir in the US and provides water to over 20 million people in Arizona, California, Nevada, and some of Mexico. An increase in demand and drought have caused the lake to remain below full capacity since 1983.
The extreme drought has caused water levels at Lake Mead – the nation's largest water reservoir – to drop to just 27% of its full capacity, threatening the essential water supply for millions of people in the region.Can you swim in Great Salt Lake? ›
Recreation in, and around, the lake
The best place to swim or float in the lake is at Antelope Island State Park, where white oolitic sand beaches provide easy access to the lake without the brine flies that are prevalent on other areas of the shoreline. The beach area also has showers to rinse off the salty water.
Because of the abundant algae and halophiles, as well as the high salinity, the lake does not support fish — but it teems with brine shrimp and brine flies, which provide essential nutrition for migrating birds.Is the Great Salt Lake still pink? ›
The entire Great Salt Lake is not pink, but there are two pink lakes within the Great Salt Lake.Can we refill the Great Salt Lake? ›
A Recharge Pipeline is being proposed to pump salt water from the Pacific Ocean into the The Great Salt Lake. The theory behind the project is that the increased water level in the lake will create more rain over the Wasatch Mountains and this will create more snowpack that will run off and recharge local reservoirs.Is it possible to save the Great Salt Lake? ›
While 1/3 of the lake's microbialite structures are now dried out and dead, many more still survive underwater and it's not too late to save them or our Great Salt Lake.Will the Great Salt Lake run out of salt? ›
Still the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere, for now, the Great Salt Lake is at risk of becoming too salty as its water levels drop.
No the great salt lake is too salty for a shark to survive. The only animal that can live in the great Salt lake is brine shrimp.Can you swim in the Great salt? ›
The best place to swim or float in the lake is at Antelope Island State Park, where white oolitic sand beaches provide easy access to the lake without the brine flies that are prevalent on other areas of the shoreline. The beach area also has showers to rinse off the salty water.Is the Great Salt Lake used for drinking water? ›
Currently, about 40 percent of the river water is diverted and used for farming, industry and other forms of human consumption. According to Wurtsbaugh, human water use has lowered the lake level 11 feet (3.3 meters) in the last 10 years.Is there oil under the Great Salt Lake? ›
A total of 13 exploratory wells was drilled by Amoco in the Great Salt Lake, from June 1978 to December 1980, resulting in an oil discovery at West Rozel and oil and/or gas shows in eight other wildcat wells. The West Rozel oil field produces from fractured Pliocene basalts at a depth of 640-730 m (2100-2400 ft).How toxic is the Great Salt Lake? ›
A study by the school of medicine at University of Utah, found that arsenic and lead have significantly increased in the lakebed sediment due to drying up the lake since the 1980s. These toxins are carcinogenic. They had been covered or dissolved in the lake's water.Will the world ever run out of salt? ›
These are deposits from ancient seas. Salt can also be extracted from sea water by building dikes around large lagoons and allowing the water to evaporate which leaves the salt content behind. No, it is unlikely the planet will ever run out of salt.How much water has the Great Salt Lake lost 2022? ›
New pictures from NASA show how the lake has been shrinking since the mid-1980s. When the Great Salt Lake was at its highest recorded level in 1986, the average water height was 1,283.7 metres. Since then, the lake has dropped about 6.7 metres, and hit a new record low on 3 July 2022 of 1,277.1 metres.Do sharks fall asleep? ›
Some sharks such as the nurse shark have spiracles that force water across their gills allowing for stationary rest. Sharks do not sleep like humans do, but instead have active and restful periods.Do sharks have tongues? ›
Yes, sharks have a tongue, and it is referred to as a “basihyal” rather than a tongue. A shark's tongue cannot move in the same way that a human tongue can since it is not a muscle. The bottom of a shark's mouth contains this little thick chunk of cartilage, and it doesn't have any taste buds or perform any functions.Do any fish live in Great Salt Lake? ›
Because of the abundant algae and halophiles, as well as the high salinity, the lake does not support fish — but it teems with brine shrimp and brine flies, which provide essential nutrition for migrating birds.