Equilibrium & Sustainability

DRIED UP: In Utah, drying Great Salt Lake leads to air pollution  

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 was judged to be the worst in the world on 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 up because 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 dry section of the Great Salt Lake at sunset

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 been shrinking, as has Africa’s Lake Chad and the Caspian Sea between 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.   

“Everybody, at least, I would say, from the people that I’m aware of, at least two people in each family have some sort of respiratory illness. A lot of people have asthma, there’s bloody noses.”  

– Mariela Loera, a policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

In the Salt Lake City area, heavy metals including arsenic are also being found in the dust from the lake. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that 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 has studied 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 a maximum depth of 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 that among 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 Utah estimates that 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 with mountains viewable in the background

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.”  

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. Associated Press-Rick Bowmer

Wurtsbaugh also raised concerns about the area’s growing population, noting that more people means more water use.  

A January projection from 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.   

One assessment found that 22.4 percent of elementary school children in the northern Imperial Valley, near the Salton Sea, have asthma at a time when that body of water is also shriveling up.   

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

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 2003 agreement, 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

Tags California Climate change Great Salt Lake Salton Sea Utah
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