GSL: Too Salty TO SUPPORT LIFE?
Antelope Island, the largest island in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, has not been an island for many years; indeed, its southern shore now extends into Salt Lake City. An eight-foot fence has been built to keep the island’s bison from roaming into the nearby airport and to protect its herd of bighorn sheep from cattle diseases. As the lake shrinks, Farmington Bay, to the island’s east, is rapidly disappearing too, so that Antelope will soon be attached to the string of suburbs north of the city by playa—the exposed, dry lake bed. Here, new housing developments, each near bright white churches and with names like “Shoreline,” rise up quickly on the former wetlands. A new highway is under construction to funnel commuters to downtown Salt Lake City. Toxic algal blooms and invasive phragmite have appeared around the outflow pipes from the North Davis Sewer District wastewater treatment plant, which now flow directly into the shallows of Farmington Bay. The new pipe will funnel treated wastewater to the far side of the island, in the hope that deeper, saltier waters will dilute the sewage.
Last November, the Great Salt Lake, the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere, reached its lowest water level ever recorded—and its highest concentration of salt. A toxic lake bed is emerging from the receding water as the suburban sprawl inches ever closer to meet it. At the shore of Antelope Island, where the briny water of the lake laps against land, Utah’s water issues also become air issues. “It’s like a bathtub, or a toilet bowl, with no drain,” Molly Blakowski, PhD candidate in the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, said of the lake. What we discard into the watershed ends up in the lake—and, increasingly, our air.
Since Mormon settlers arrived in 1847, the lake has been used as both a dumping ground and a source of profit from mineral extraction and brine shrimp harvesting. There is still money to be made from the lake’s water. But there’s no plan to protect the health of the 1.2 million people who live in the Salt Lake Valley and the hundreds of thousands more expected to arrive—let alone the tiny brine flies that uphold a vibrant ecosystem that extends far across the American West. And those at greatest risk are those who won’t be able to leave.