Feature

Obituary for Great Salt Lake: Even lakes are not immortal.

November 30, 2020

By Bonnie K. Baxter, Ph.D | Jaimi K. Butler

Great Salt Lake experienced her final glimmering sunset today, succumbing to a long struggle with chronic diversions exacerbated by climate change.

She was born 13,000 years ago to Lake Bonneville, who occupied the basin previously, and the Holocene Epoch, who melted ice and evaporated water. Her dusty remains will be scattered across the Salt Lake Valley for millennia— we will be constantly reminded of her passing by our air quality monitors.

She was preceded in death by her cousin, Owens Lake, who lived in California. She is survived by Mono Lake, also of California, whose family took legal action using the public trust doctrine to revive her when she was on life support.

During her life, Great Salt Lake underwent many surgeries and amputations. She suffered blockages in her circulatory system, most significantly a transverse incision by a rail causeway, which restricted the flow of her fluids.

Although it was common for her to expand and shrink her girth, the last 50 years of her life were especially tumultuous in this regard. When she was at her largest in the 1980s, the State of Utah insisted that she diet with intervention to protect her human neighbors from flooding.

Ultimately, the thirst of a rapidly growing population upstream, which prevented her from refilling, caused a severe reduction in her size. As water was withheld, she began wasting away. Projects such as an inland port, development of Bear River (the lake’s largest tributary), relocating the state prison and construction of a non-essential landfill put much strain on her. In her frail state, she was exposed to the planet’s warming temperatures and local drought conditions. The combination of terminal dehydration and high fever caused her eventual demise.

 

Great Salt Lake had a very salty personality and was known to her neighbors as “Stinky” and “Buggy.” She had the best memory, holding on to every mineral, pollutant and sediment she ever encountered. Noted for hosting many around her table, she fed anyone who migrated by. Visitors could count on being accosted by her pet biting gnats in the spring but would always leave her home with the most unique treasures. She loved people, especially those Native inhabitants of the Basin who built caves and traded salt, but also those humans who built funky buildings and partied on her beaches.

A nonconformist, Great Salt Lake was infamous for wearing a palette of intriguing colors, not the usual blue of other lakes. Her wardrobe was steeped in lemonade pink, photosynthetic green and sandy taupe. Her salty shorelines were ruffled and rugged. It was her northern red waters and ethereal characteristics that drew artist Robert Smithson to Utah to embellish her with his Spiral Jetty. She demonstrated her care and concern for people by floating them gently in her arms and never allowing them to sink. However, when disturbed, her short temper could quickly whip the heavy waters into frothy waves that could capsize a boat and would leave foam blanketing the shoreline.

Although not a skier, Great Salt Lake was an avid donor to the ski industry, contributing her “lake effect” to what has become known as “the greatest snow on Earth.” During the summer months, she enjoyed paddle boarding, canoeing and sailing.

She combined her love of chemistry and aesthetics to create many rusted pieces of art. She served as a model for many artists, over the years, who echoed her uncommon beauty in their work.

She was a committed volunteer for her local environment, spending her time absorbing heavy metals and balancing nutrients. Always an avid birdwatcher, Great Salt Lake earned a Ph.D. in ornithology, observing 338 bird species over thousands of years.

She was an entrepreneur, supporting an array of businesses from brine shrimp harvesting to salt extraction. As a hobbyist, she collected old boats, wooden railroad trestles and an occasional airplane.

Great Salt Lake was an award-winning ecosystem; in fact, she was lauded as a site of hemispheric importance for birds. For centuries, she hosted one of the largest breeding colonies of white pelicans in the world. For decades, she hosted the annual Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, the Great Salt Lake Open Water Swim, and Antelope Island’s Spider Festival.

She was a noted activist for diversity, understanding that life of all sorts has equal value in the world. Once, standing in protest, she challenged the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to develop water quality standards made difficult by her high salt content, leading to equity for salt lakes everywhere. For this work, and that for her inclusion of Native people in her history, she is often referred to as “Notorious G.S.L.”

There was action to prevent the death of Great Salt Lake, but it was too little, too late. In 2019, as she was gasping her dying breath, she influenced the Utah House to pass a Concurrent Resolution (HCR-10), which would acknowledge her condition of desiccation: “Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Legislature of the state of Utah, the Governor concurring therein, recognize the critical importance of ensuring adequate water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands, to maintain a healthy and sustainable lake system.” While this recognized a need for policy and engagement by stakeholders, the resolution did not fund any specific remedies.

She supported Utah’s economy for many years, but we did not adequately fund her healthcare in time. Had we done so, we may not be mourning her death today.

Utah regrets the loss of this unique piece of its identity, as does the lake’s namesake, Salt Lake City. The state is still struggling with 7,706 employment casualties when the brine shrimp and salt extraction companies literally dried up. Also, one million tourists no longer visit Utah, since the closure of state and federal lands surrounding Great Salt Lake. With her death, Utahns now pay more for their water treatment, and the ski season is limited to just a few weeks. They also are suffering additional health costs from dust exposure and a spiritual loss of this cultural hub.

She will be missed by the 85,000 American white pelicans who nested and fed around the lake, the five million eared grebes that fed on the abundant brine shrimp in her salty waters, and their 10 million avian colleagues who loved Great Salt Lake for millennia. The greatest loss is the opportunity for folks to connect, find common ground and work together to save her.

Her friends and family would like to express thanks to the many people who pleaded for action on behalf of Great Salt Lake. Our gratitude is extended to state and federal agencies, community members, advocacy groups, and the many research scientists and students who strived to understand her and who spread the word about her importance.

In lieu of flowers, conserve water and call your legislators to advocate for smart water laws. In keeping with her salty personality, she requested that her admirers play the song “Another One Bites the Dust” at her memorial.

 

—Jaimi K. Butler and Bonnie K. Baxter, Ph.D., Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. Artwork by Johanna Bossart, Westminster alumna. With apologies to and inspiration from Rowan Jacobsen (Jacobsen, R. 2016. Obituary: Great Barrier Reef. Outside Magazine.)

 

Jaimi Butler and Bonnie Baxter run the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College and study the biology of this amazing system with their students. Jaimi’s work focuses on the birds and brine shrimp while Bonnie studies the microbial life of the lake. Together, they have just co-edited the first book on the biology of the lake, Great Salt Lake Biology: A Terminal Lake in a Time of Change. They also wrote the lake’s first children’s book, The Great Great Salt Lake Monster Mystery. Both are available online at The King’s English.

 

What can we do to prevent the death of Great Salt Lake? Many strategies are in the hands of state agencies, water lawyers and the legislature, but how can Utahns intervene?

First, let’s change the narrative!

Three-quarters of the people in Utah live in Great Salt Lake’s watershed. We have a relationship with the lake and, therefore, a responsibility to care for it. This lake is not just “stinky.” It is special and provides our state with immense resources and ecosystem services.

Second, recognize that watershed dynamics are complicated. For example, population growth might not correlate with demand for water, as land use patterns may change.

Lastly, we should realize that water conservation may involve advocating for water laws and paying higher water bills, as well as reducing our water footprint.

Your voice is the best tool

for change. Here are some things on the horizon to pay attention to:

  • 2019 HCR-10: The “Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake” created a group of stakeholders that will develop recommendations by the end of this year to support policy and inspire action.
  • Great Salt Lake Advisory Council Water Strategy: GSLAC just released a 12-pronged GSL approach, a well-researched plan that has high potential to improve water management and increase water flow to Great Salt Lake. This will give guidelines to managers at Utah state agencies and ultimately could affect strategies to incentivize water users.
  • Promontory Point Resources Landfill: PPR (the parent company is California-based) signaled with a recent letter sent to neighbors that they will be re-applying to the Department of Environmental Quality to change the classification to a class V landfill, which would allow import of waste that is toxic to life, to be stored adjacent to a fault line that runs under the lake. This landfill has been deemed redundant and unnecessary with capacity in other class V landfills estimated to last 1,600 years.
  • Bear River Development Project: A Utah legislature-approved $2 billion pipeline would take water from the Bear River and bring it to developing Utah communities and farmlands, but its funding has been postponed. Modeling predicts that conservation measures and a change in water pricing structure make the pipeline unnecessary.

Humans are determining the fate of the lake through both action and inaction. Having watched, in recent years, the momentum coalescing around policies and strategies to protect the lake at the state level, we are hopeful. We may be able to overcome the inertia of old water policy and build a new future for our salty neighbor.                                    — BB and JB