The Great Salt Lake will dry up in 5 years unless Utah lawmakers act now

The Great Salt Lake will dry up in 5 years unless Utah lawmakers act now

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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   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 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.

2023-02-05 15:56

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