A dire new report has sounded the alarm on the future of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, which could vanish in as little as five years unless lawmakers in Utah take drastic action. As historic megadrought smothers the western United States, agribusiness and mining interests continue to drain tremendous volumes of water from Utah’s watershed. If the Great Salt Lake were to disappear, it would trigger a cataclysmic chain reaction in the local ecology and economy that would devastate the state for generations to come. Reductions in water usage between 30% and 50% over the next two years may be required to prevent such an outcome. Save Our Great Salt Lake cofounder and organizer Chandler Rosenberg joins TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez to explain the crisis facing Utah and what must be done to avert environmental and economic catastrophe.
Studio/Post-Production: Adam Coley
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News is an independent, viewer-supported, nonprofit media network, which means we don’t do ads, we don’t do paywalls, and we don’t take corporate cash. So we need each one of you to support our work so we can keep bringing you coverage of the voices and issues you care about most. So please head on over to therealnews.com/support and become a monthly sustainer of our work. It really makes a difference.
Unless drastic action is taken now, Utah’s Great Salt Lake could dry up completely within the next five years. I’m going to stop and say that again. The Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western hemisphere and the eighth largest terminal lake in the world, a vital component of our hemispheric ecosystem and the state economy, could be gone in the next five years.
That is the dire warning issued by a new report, co-researched and co-authored by scholars and conservationists from numerous organizations and academic institutions, including Brigham Young University, Westminster College, the University of Alberta, and Utah State University. Summarizing the report’s findings, journalist Maanvi Singh recently reported for The Guardian, “A team of 32 scientists and conservationists caution that the lake could decline beyond recognition in just five years. Their warning is especially urgent amid a historic western megadrought fueled by global heating. To save the lake, the report suggests 30% to 50% reductions in water use may be required to allow 2.5 million acre-feet of water to flow from streams and rivers directly into the lake over the next two years.
Already, the lake has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its surface area as trillions of liters of water are diverted away from it to supply farms and homes. As a result, the lake is becoming saltier and uninhabitable to native flies and brine shrimp. Eventually, the lake will be unable to sustain the more than 10 million migratory birds and wildlife that frequent it. Declining lake levels could also make magnesium, lithium, and other critical minerals’ extraction infeasible within the next two years.
Dust from the exposed lake bed could further damage crops, degrade soil, and cause snow to melt more quickly – Triggering widespread economic losses for Utah’s agriculture and tourism industries. Toxic sediment, laced with arsenic, from the lake bed can exacerbate respiratory conditions and heart and lung diseases, and could increase residents’ risk for cancer.”
How the hell did we get here? And what on earth will our reality look like if, for the rest of our lives, we can only ever refer to the Great Salt Lake in the past tense? What efforts are currently being marshaled to save the Great Salt Lake? And what can people like you and me do to help? To talk about all of this and more, I’m honored to be joined today by Chandler Rosenberg. Chandler is a co-founder and organizer with Save Our Great Salt Lake. She’s also a co-founder of the Utah Food Coalition. Chandler, thank you so much for joining us today on The Real News.
Chandler Rosenberg: Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thank you so much for having me and for turning everyone’s attention to Great Salt Lake.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, we really appreciate your time and, of course, all the work that you and others are doing on the ground, because that’s what I hope we leave people feeling after they watch this segment, is both a sense of the urgency of the situation, but also a sense that we all need to do whatever we can to fight off the worst effects of this. And I’m really, really grateful to you for sitting down and chatting with us. And I know we’re not going to be able to cover every facet of this in the next 20 minutes or so, but I wanted to start by just getting viewers and listeners up to speed on the crisis with the Great Salt Lake, and talking about some of the root causes.
So just from the jump, how bad is it, and how has it gotten so bad? And what effects are already being felt from the lake diminishing so drastically? And I wanted to ask if you could say a little bit about what will happen to the area, to the ecosystem, and to the population if this crisis isn’t addressed for the emergency that it is?
Chandler Rosenberg: Yeah, great questions. I’ll start with how bad it is. You’ve touched on a lot of it. We have reached the lowest lake level in recorded history. The majority of the lake bed is exposed. We’re already seeing the beginnings of ecosystem collapse. So what I’ve been told by scientists is that ecosystem collapse begins at 17% salinity, and we have already measured 19% salinity out in open water. This is a huge problem because of the ecosystem that relies on the lake. We’ve got 10 million migratory birds who rely on Great Salt Lake as their only source of food in their cross-continental migration from Canada down to Mexico and to South America. So Great Salt Lake is hugely important internationally, really, for these bird species. And with the increased salinity levels, we are seeing the brine flies and the brine shrimp that the birds rely on… This year, the brine flies weren’t hatching in numbers that we’re used to, and the brine shrimp are moving in that direction.
So the ecosystem’s absolutely in peril, but so is our health here in Utah. So Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, which means water flows into the lake but not out of it. And for centuries, it’s been treated as a dumping ground, unfortunately, here in Utah. So not only has the lake collected arsenic – Utah has naturally high levels of arsenic in our soils – But it’s also been collecting chemicals from agriculture, chemicals from mining, industrial runoff. All sorts of things have been compiling in the bottom of the lake for centuries, really. And as the lake level lowers, because it’s so shallow, it reveals a large amount of the lake bed and dust. So this toxic dust you may have heard about in the news, the wind picks up the dust and threatens our already egregious air quality here in Salt Lake City. So it’s a huge problem.
I will say, I think the air quality threat is in some ways a good thing because it’s activated a huge part of the population that’s already primed to air quality issues to get involved and take action for Great Salt Lake when they may not be as motivated for other types of climate action.
To your question of how has it gotten this bad, I think most broadly it’s the idea that A, we don’t live in a desert, and we can use and abuse and control water however we want. And B, I think this idea that water is infinite; if we run out of it, we’ll go get it somewhere else. So we are just using way too much water. Human diversion is the primary driver for water loss for Great Salt Lake, and about 80% of that is for agriculture, irrigated agriculture, which is predominantly alfalfa, a portion of which is being exported to other countries as well as other states to support growing meat and dairy industries.
So yeah, the agriculture is a huge piece of it. Another big piece of it is that we don’t have a great track record for water conservation here in Utah. The Utah legislature tends to avoid conservation legislation. So that’s a big piece of this. And then I think at the root of our water consumption, Utah is the second driest state in the nation, and we have some of the highest municipal water rates in the country because we have the cheapest water in the country. So really just no incentive to conserve when water’s that cheap. So like I said, this idea that we don’t have to worry about water, we’re going to figure it out at some point. But we’re really reaching the end of that logic and trying to figure out new ways to work together to steward our water going forward.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I’m a native of Southern California, so I am very familiar with living places where we don’t conserve very well. And I feel a lot of, I guess the term for it now is eco despair, climate despair, when I think about that. I’ve grown up, like I said, every year, the summers are brutal, the hills get very dry, then the fires start. And it feels like, every year, the fires have gotten bigger, the drought’s gotten worse, and we’re not doing anything different.
I flew over the Colorado River for the first time since before COVID hit this last year, and I haven’t been able to shake the sense of dread that I’ve felt ever since then, because I just don’t think any of us are properly prepared for what will happen if and when these vital water sources completely dry up. And I guess I wanted to stress that for folks. I understand that when you hear the term crisis and emergency so often you tend to maybe feel that maybe it’s the media blowing it over. But there is the other option that we are existing on a timeline with multiple compounding crises happening at the same time, and this is one of them.
Chandler Rosenberg: Yeah, absolutely.
Maximillian Alvarez: The effects of losing the entire Great Salt Lake, you mentioned them. And I was just going nuts reading about this because there’s so many ripple effects, like you said. Like, as the water goes down, the salinity in the water gets higher, which means the shrimp have to expend more energy just to survive in that water, which means they don’t reproduce, which means the birds that fly across the continent aren’t going to have that vital source that they’ve had for forever, and then they’re going to have this cascading ecosystemic collapse. But that’s not even the half of it. I think you already mentioned that the Great Salt Lake, the lake effect is vital for the snow that y’all get over there. The tourism industry that depends on that snow and skiing and whatnot, that’s going to crater.
And then I think the point that you made is such a vital but sad one in that it’s obviously not a good thing that there’s arsenic and other heavy metals on the bed of this lake that are now being blown into the air. But it takes that level of shitstorm for people to finally say, oh yeah, I don’t want to be breathing in arsenic. Maybe we should do something about this. So I wanted to ask about that. What has been done up until now? And could you give viewers and listeners a sense of… I guess this is a leading question, but have the efforts that have been marshaled up till now, at the local or state or federal level, been adequate to the crisis that we’re talking about here?
Chandler Rosenberg: Yeah, short answer is no. The actions thus far have not been sufficient. But I think things are moving in the right direction. So really, the lake has been drying up for decades. No one really knew until about a year ago. I’m not going to say that that was because of us, but our organization started just over a year ago because we heard our local podcast did a series on the state and fate of Great Salt Lake, and they started to talk about this potential for the toxic dust bowl if the arsenic starts blowing into the valley, which it already is. And we were just like, oh my God, no one is talking about this. Why isn’t anyone talking about this? This is the most pressing, urgent, local, tangible crisis imaginable. We need to do something to raise the alarm.
And so over the last year, we’ve seen an immense amount of growing public awareness as well as leaders stepping up and saying that, okay, great, Salt Lake’s my first priority. We’re going to do something for Great Salt Lake. It’s all been a great start, but we have yet to see any meaningful action that gets water to the lake. And at the end of the day, the only thing that we can really classify as a solution is something that literally gets water to Great Salt Lake.
Last legislative session, they called it the Year of Water. Our Speaker of the House, Brad Wilson, took up Great Salt Lake as his big issue. He took all of the legislators out for a tour of the lake from a helicopter. He held a Great Salt Lake summit, and did all of these things. And there are all these headlines like, okay, legislator’s going to save Great Salt Lake. And it’s like, we need to define what “save the lake” means, because unless there’s water to the lake, we have not saved it.
For example, last year, at the 2022 Utah legislative session, two of the landmark bills that were put out by the Speaker of the House and praised for saving the lake, one of them is HB 33, and it is an instream flow amendment, which allows state agencies to temporarily lease water rights, from farmers especially but I think anyone who wants to temporarily lease their water rights, to the state agencies who will then shepherd it, make sure it gets to Great Salt Lake.
As of right now, they have not purchased any water rights. Nothing has been done to move that forward. I understand this stuff takes a long time, but we are just not seeing… One of our mentors up at the University of Utah always says, we have incremental solutions responding to non-incremental change, which is exactly what we’re seeing. The other bill creates a Great Salt Lake trust and a whole bunch of money to buy these water rights, get them to Great Salt Lake. A good idea in theory, but we’ve still not seen any water rights purchased.
So yeah, I would say, thus far, we’ve been disappointed. What we really want to see is an emergency declaration that says, all of these people need to start working together and figure out a way to get water to the lake. This is going to take new collaborations, new ideas, people thinking differently, and zooming out and realizing this is a crisis and we should treat it one. And we’ve all been dancing around this issue. The scientists are saying this is a crisis, the report that you mentioned. But so far, the legislature is not treating it the crisis that it is.
One of the big proposals that came out of the legislature, I can’t remember if it was during the last session or just last year, but a proposal to build a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake. That was their solution, when really all we need is simple conservation. There’s a lot that we could do to reduce water, but instead our leaders are dreaming big and trying to figure out how we can continue business as usual and bring in water from elsewhere.
So yeah, I would say thus far, we’re not super excited about the solutions themselves, although I’m an eternal optimist. And I think heading into the 2023 session, just because of all of the public pressure – You can’t go anywhere without someone talking about Great Salt Lake these days – I do hope that we will see some legislation that gets water to the lake. I will add, there was a huge bill that we were excited about, a property tax bill. So to get a little bit wonky, like I mentioned, Utah has the cheapest water in the country, highest municipal water rate.
Our water is so cheap because we pay extra property taxes on our homes, cars, and businesses to our water districts. And we are in one of the only states that does this. That’s how they make the majority of their money that they then use to propose bigger water projects that will further harm the lake. So there was a bill introduced earlier this year, or I guess late last year, to eliminate this property tax subsidy and let the market dictate the cost of water, which would go a long way in just naturally incentivizing conservation. And that bill was demoted to a study bill, which is what you do when you’re sending a dog away to a farm. They’re not interested in pursuing it. So yeah, it’s definitely challenging. We’ve got the public pressure, it’s just how can we translate that public pressure into political will?
Maximillian Alvarez: And God, the pipeline from the Pacific is just… It’s in the category of the, hey, let’s block out the sun a little bit to –
Chandler Rosenberg: Oh, that’s their other idea, is cloud seeding. So you get all of these things, and they’re like, no, we’re saving the lake. And it’s like, come on.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right, it’s anything but address the root cause of the problem.
Chandler Rosenberg: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I wanted to underscore what you said earlier for viewers and listeners. Because even with the Pacific pipeline proposal, it’s like everyone… What was that movie? There Will Be Blood. It’s like the Daniel Day-Lewis line about drinking your milkshake. It’s like everyone’s got straws everywhere else, and they’re all just sucking up the water. And it’s not all going to be there always. And that is the crucial point that you made at the beginning, that the real crux of the Great Salt Lake going away is that the water that flows into it is all being taken before it even gets there. And the vast majority of it being from agriculture, but also industry and communal population use. Is that right? I just wanted to clarify that before I moved on.
Chandler Rosenberg: Yeah. It’s about 80% agriculture, I think 9% industry on the lake, 9% municipal use, the majority of which of that municipal use is lawns, outdoor water use. But yeah, we’re in a really tricky spot where we’ve got this looming health crisis, environmental crisis that demands an incredibly urgent response from people who don’t know a whole lot about how to address these issues. Our legislature, they’re not water policy experts. And so it takes all of us educating ourselves and then educating them and pointing towards the solutions, just like that paper that you referenced so well.
So on the one hand, we need these solutions that get water to the lake in the next couple of years to prevent this ecosystem collapse and the worst effects of the toxic dust. But then on the other hand, we need these huge, systemic, long-term changes that really get at the root and get at our ideas about what it means to live in a desert, in a place that doesn’t have a whole lot of water. So yeah, it’s a tall order.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and you started to answer the final question I had, ’cause I know I got to let you go, I can’t keep you for too long. But you mentioned the dynamic within the legislature, the raising of public awareness, which grassroots organizations like yours have been really invaluable in raising that public awareness. And we here in the media need to do our jobs and step up and make sure that people know about not only the crisis itself, but the efforts on the ground by regular people to mobilize to stop this before it becomes not just an avertable crisis, but a permanent one.
And I wanted to zoom out for a second and ask, like you mentioned, there are deeper systemic issues here. What does the potential loss of the Great Salt Lake, again, the greatest salt lake in the Western Hemisphere, in the next five years, what does that tell us about the larger situation that we, humanity, are in right now? And what can folks watching and listening to this do to get involved? Whether it’s organizations like yours or others that you’re seeing, what can people do to not just cower in despair and resignation, or wait for a saving grace from a tech billionaire or an elected official? What would you say to folks who know that they want to do something but maybe don’t know where to start?
Chandler Rosenberg: To the first piece of your question, I just want to say, I think you hit it right on. I really do feel like this crisis is the most tangible opportunity that our community here in Utah is going to have to respond to the climate crisis largely. And so I’m like, if we can’t figure out new ways to work together on this and respond to this very tangible disaster in our own backyards, then yeah, what does that mean for our ability to respond to the larger issues?
And I do think all the work that we’re doing to figure out new ways to collaborate, new ways to work together, how each of us, as citizens, can engage on a regular basis. I think all of that work towards Great Salt Lake will also go a long way in just rebuilding and re-imagining how we can work together for climate disasters ahead of us.
As far as what people can do, for those that are not in Utah or Salt Lake City, the more you can amplify the issue, if you care about it, the better. It really helps to put pressure on our in-state lawmakers when they feel like people outside of Utah are talking about it. And for those in Utah, I would say follow along with our group, Save Our Great Salt Lake. What we are really trying to do is be a bridge between what’s happening up at the legislature in these different decision-making spaces, even the media, and translate what’s happening for people, and make it easy for them to get involved. So throughout this legislative session, we’ll be following the committee meetings, sharing information about when you can show up. If there’s a bill that we need to speak either for or against, we’ll provide information as to what you can say.
And there are a lot of other fantastic organizations locally as well. Friends of Great Salt Lake has been advocating and educating around the lake for a long time. Heal Utah. Really though, any way that you want to get involved is needed. That’s what I think is so exciting about this, and especially community climate organizing in general. To the despair that you were talking about, I was depressed for two full years about the drought in Utah because I just saw all these pieces and I was like, we have this crisis. 80% of our water’s going to agriculture, but no one’s doing anything about it. And literally the week that we started organizing Save our Great Salt Lake, it was just a few friends that came together, just to be able to talk about these things with people and brainstorm and do something, we’ve all felt so much better.
So I think although there is this despair piece, and it is a crisis, and it’s going to continue to be difficult, there’s so much joy and community that happens when you get together with your friends, whether they’re old friends or new friends, and decide to do something. And it really can be, if you’re uncomfortable speaking out about something and you prefer to do art. We’ve really leaned into artists helping us raise the message. If you want to do backend computer stuff. There’s really room for everybody in the climate movement. It’s just deciding what you want to get involved in and get involved. I hope that’s helpful.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. No, I think that’s a beautiful message, and one that we subscribe to here at The Real News. I say all the time, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. And thank you so much, Chandler, for doing something. That, everyone, is Chandler Rosenberg. Chandler is a co-founder and organizer with Save Our Great Salt Lake. She is also a co-founder of the Utah Food Coalition. Chandler, thank you so much for taking time to sit down and chat with us on The Real News today. I really appreciate it.
Chandler Rosenberg: Yeah, thank you so much for all the work you’re doing. It’s great to be here.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximilian Alvarez. Before you go, please head on over to rherealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.