As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up, Utah Faces An ‘Environmental Nuclear Bomb’

SALT LAKE CITY — If the Great Salt Lake, which has already shrunk by two-thirds, continues to dry up, here’s what’s in store:

The lake’s flies and brine shrimp would die off — scientists warn it could start as soon as this summer — threatening the 10 million migratory birds that stop at the lake annually to feed on the tiny creatures. Ski conditions at the resorts above Salt Lake City, a vital source of revenue, would deteriorate. The lucrative extraction of magnesium and other minerals from the lake could stop.

Most alarming, the air surrounding Salt Lake City would occasionally turn poisonous. The lake bed contains high levels of arsenic and as more of it becomes exposed, wind storms carry that arsenic into the lungs of nearby residents, who make up three-quarters of Utah’s population.

“We have this potential environmental nuclear bomb that’s going to go off if we don’t take some pretty dramatic action,” said Joel Ferry, a Republican state lawmaker and rancher who lives on the north side of the lake.

As climate change continues to cause record-breaking drought, there are no easy solutions. Saving the Great Salt Lake would require letting more snowmelt from the mountains flow to the lake, which means less water for residents and farmers. That would threaten the region’s breakneck population growth and high-value agriculture — something state leaders seem reluctant to do.