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Will Utah's Great Salt Lake disappear?

Will Utah's Great Salt Lake disappear?
Will Utah's Great Salt Lake disappear? 08:11

Utah's Great Salt Lake doesn't look so "great" these days. This place where tourists once bobbed up and down like corks in water far saltier than the ocean is now quite literally turning to dust.

This story hits close to home: I grew up in Salt Lake City. We had a sailboat here. But today, this marina is lifeless; the only boats here are sailing the blacktop of a nearby parking lot. 

A marina on the Great Salt Lake.  CBS News

You'd go out the channel there and as soon as you rounded the corner, you just saw this huge expanse of water. To me it was like the ocean. But my ocean has shriveled. Once covering 2,300 square miles, today the Great Salt Lake is only a third that size. This all happened just since I was in high school.

Landsat images of the Great Salt Lake taken almost four decades apart show the body of water has shrunken to one-third of its size.  NASA Earth Observatory

I took to the air to see for myself. My pilot, Andy Wallace, was flying over these waters at about the same age I was sailing on them. He pointed out one stretch of land in the lake: "That was completely under water in the spring, so that's emerged since then," he said.

I asked, "Have you noticed a difference, like, year by year?"

"Oh, yeah."

The lake always had a cycle, depending on how much water was flowing into it. Some years it was low, and some years it was high, like in 1983, when floodwaters were diverted down city streets.

Utah Senator and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney believes this has gone far beyond the normal cycle: "There are some people who say, 'Oh, it's all gonna change. Don't worry, we're gonna go from dry to wet. This is just a big cycle,'" he said. "Assuming that we're going to have a continuation of what we're seeing now, you've got to take action, what-if action. And allowing the lake to dry up is not something we can allow."

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Climate change and the West's historic megadrought certainly haven't done the lake any favors, but it's the diversion of water away from the lake that Romney says is less than divine: "The water in this area helped us bloom like a rose, as the Scripture says. And yeah, we've got trees and beautiful lawns. But some of that's gonna have to change."

Most of the lake's water is spoken for long before it gets there. It's not just those green lawns for Utah's exploding population; 70% of the water goes to agriculture. And then there's the billion-dollar-a-year mineral extraction industry. It uses the lake's water, too.

Salt is obviously king – a million tons is produced here annually – but there's magnesium and lithium, too, said Joe Havasi, vice president of natural resources at Compass Minerals. If the lake dries up, he worries that so, too, might thousands of local jobs. "When you appreciate the scope, [there's] the direct extraction," he said, "but you have the indirect jobs – vendors, contractors, trucking."

Compass Minerals extracts salt, as well as magnesium chloride, sulfate of potash, and lithium.  CBS News

So just how bad is it, really? A new scientific report warns the lake is on track to disappear in the next five years, unless water use is cut by as much as 50% annually.

"I don't know of any other environmental threat that's moving this quickly," said Bonnie Baxter, a Westminster College biochemist and one of the authors of that study. For two decades, she has been studying the lake's brine shrimp and flies, a nutritious food source for some 10 million migratory shorebirds.

"This year was pretty horrific," she said. "We didn't see a lot of flies, and the birds that eat the flies are really emaciated and struggling."

"It sounds like you're talking about the whole ecosystem collapsing," I asked.

"Exactly. When I'm out here, I have to walk away and cry often. I can't get through the day just thinking about the science. I have to take a moment."

It's emotional, to be sure. And that's not even the worst of it. A bigger problem is actually blowing in the wind.

Kevin Perry, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, has spent the last 15 years biking across the lakebed, trying to determine if the newly-exposed soil poses any threat. Every 500 meters, he would scoop up a soil sample. What he found was that it was laden with toxic heavy metals. "There were nine elements that had concentrations out in the soil that are potentially alarming," Perry said. "But by far, arsenic had the most widespread abundance."

Kevin Perry takes soil samples from the dried lakebed of the Great Salt Lake. CBS News

The same wind that used to blow sailboats around will also, he said, pick up that toxic dust and send it straight into the lungs of residents all along the Wasatch Front.

And how big is that danger? "There are two-and-a-half million people that live within 50 miles of this lake," said Perry. "And all of those 2.5 million people are at risk from long-term exposure from the dust."

It's happened before, about 600 miles to the Southwest at what used to be Owens Lake in California. A century ago, its inflows were diverted to provide water to the city of Los Angeles. But once its lake bottom was exposed, the area became the largest source of toxic dust in the nation. Phillip Kiddoo, the pollution control officer in the Great Basin, said, "It was really bad. It was 100 times or more over the federal air quality standard."

Kiddoo oversees a massive operation to tamp down the dust, using gravel, brush and, yes, water. The total cost of that mitigation today: $2.5 billion, just to mitigate the mistake. "I think Owens Lake is a bellwether for the Great Salt Lake," he said.

As hard as controlling the dust is at the site of Owens Lake, consider this: Great Salt Lake is 12 times larger. "This would be exponentially more expensive, maybe not even possible," said Brad Wilson, the Republican Speaker of the Utah House. Under his leadership, the state has passed a flood of water conservation measures. Utahans have responded by voluntarily saving about nine billion gallons of water just last summer alone. "It's been almost unprecedented really on this issue how everyone, regardless of political ideology or age, or where they grew up, is aware of the lake and cares about it for various reasons," Wilson said.

President Biden just signed a bill (co-sponsored by Senator Romney) that allocates $25 million to monitor Great Salt Lake, and others like it. But studying the problem, and fixing it, are two different things.

"My guess is the cost is gonna be in the billions and billions of dollars," Romney said. "How we fund that, that's another question."

I asked, "Are you optimistic that we can fix it?"

"There's no question in my mind that we can fix it," said Romney. "The question is, will there be the public and political will to take the tough medicine? We're going to have to take pretty aggressive action. If we don't, the consequence for all of us would be severe."

The last light to leave the Salt Lake Valley is from the sunsets that, even now, still reflect off the lake. It's been that way for thousands of years. I'd like to think in geologic time Great Salt Lake is still too young to die. But I guess that's up to us.

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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Ed Givnish.

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