SALT LAKE CITY – Kevin Perry had just started his morning routine, stepping out to pick up the diary, when he noticed something was wrong with the sky.
“In 30 seconds I was coughing and my throat ached,” Dr. Perry, an atmospheric specialist at the University of Utah, said of this August morning. “It was the worst air quality I have ever experienced in my life.”
Shrouded in smoke from the colossal California wildfires 500 miles away, Salt Lake City had that morning passed smog-smothered mega-cities like New Delhi and Jakarta to record the most polluted air of any major city. of the world.
The grim distinction has alarmed both longtime residents and newcomers to Utah, where a searing economy and easy access to outdoor activities like skiing and mountain biking are fueling the growing population. fastest of all states.
But the consequences of growth, including more vehicles on the road, and smoke from this summer’s wildfires are compounding an already grim deterioration in air quality caused by a prolonged drought.
Scientists say drought, along with water diversions, has shriveled the Great Salt Lake, the country’s largest body of water after the Great Lakes, to its lowest levels in more than a century. The result is large areas of dry lake bed, similar to the dry Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union, exposing millions of people in Utah to dust storms containing arsenic and arsenic. other toxic elements.
“Whenever the wind blows, we are subjected to the dust of these dry lake beds scattered all over the place,” said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “There are residues of pesticides and agricultural chemicals that have migrated into the lake for many decades. “
For now, the shrinking Great Salt Lake slow-motion ecological disaster appears to contrast with the vibrancy of Salt Lake City, a hotbed for a $ 1.5 billion ski industry that’s also home to outerwear companies. like Black Diamond, Cotopaxi and Kuhl.
But as the outdoor recreation industry relies on images of the blue sky, scientists say the air quality around the Wasatch Front, the metropolitan area where about 80% of Utah’s people live , is deteriorating although many residents do not believe.
The bowl-shaped topography of the valley that includes Salt Lake City creates an inversion that traps air pollution – usually during the winter – from sources such as motor vehicle exhaust. It’s a bit like the situation in Santiago, the Chilean capital cradled in the mountains which is one of the most polluted cities in Latin America.
A more recent problem throughout the year, magnified by the population boom, is ground-level ozone pollution from sources such as power plants and cars, which can increase the frequency of energy crises. asthma and worsen lung diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
The Environmental Protection Agency in 2018 designated the northern Wasatch Front airshed, which includes part of the Salt Lake City area, as in violation of federal ozone standards. The move sparked bitter political wrangling over whether Utah’s oil and mining industries were pushing ozone levels up.
Expressing concern over deteriorating air quality, especially in winter, Ski magazine Powder warned: “We may start to see visitors to Salt Lake traveling in gas masks with their ski gear. .
The smoke from the wildfires now blowing in California, where several large fires continue to burn, is also an extraordinarily toxic form of pollution. The particles can be much smaller than those in chimneys, making them easier to inhale and be picked up by the bloodstream.
Then there is the wilting of the Great Salt Lake. While the lake’s water level has fluctuated widely over time, the US Geological Survey found in July that it had reached its lowest level since measurements began in 1875.
At its average water elevation, the lake, which accumulates salt and other minerals because it has no outlet to the ocean, spans 1,700 square miles. But today it only expands about 950 square miles after losing 44% of its area, an area larger than the city of Houston.
Extreme weather conditions
The narrowing of the lake gives surreal scenes. On Antelope Island, near a once bustling marina that is now unused and empty, dozens of microbialites, the reef-like mounds created by millions of microbes, are exposed to the air.
Because brine shrimp and lake brine flies depend on microbials as their primary food source, and because millions of birds feed on shrimp and flies, falling water levels could trigger a collapse of water. the lake’s food chain if more microbials are threatened, according to a July study by the Utah Geological Survey.
Elsewhere around Grand Lac Salé, visitors who once could enjoy the shore side picnic tables now have to walk across a dry lake bed to dip their toes in the water; wrecks have started to emerge as the water recedes.
Julie Mattingly, commodore of the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, founded in 1877, said dozens of boats at risk of getting stuck in the lake bed were removed this year and placed in dry storage.
“There is no yachting at the moment on the lake,” Ms. Mattingly said, adding that the club’s membership has grown from around 100 members this year to 13. Now, she said. , members go on “land cruises”, where they drive around and view the historic sites along the lake.
The decline of the Great Salt Lake has drawn comparisons to the crisis around the Aral Sea, which was once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water. It started to dry up in the 1960s when the former Soviet Union built water diversion projects to irrigate parts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Today much of the region is one of the youngest deserts in the world, which triggers dust storms almost every week and is known by some as the Aral Sands. Closer to Utah, scientists are also comparing the collapsing water levels at Owens Lake in California, whose water was diverted to Los Angeles about a century ago.
Since then, Owens Lake has also become a site of massive dust storms, becoming the nation’s largest source of PM 10, a type of particulate pollution that can irritate the eyes, nose and throat.
“We’ve seen this happen in terminal basin lakes around the world,” said atmospheric scientist Dr Perry. He said the prolonged drought had resulted in disappointing snowfall in the surrounding mountains; while the lake can gain up to two feet from spring runoff, the smaller snowpack during the winter has raised its level by just six inches.
Another factor is Utah’s policies of diverting fresh water from the springs that feed the lake. Over 60 percent of redirected water goes to agriculture.
“We are diverting too much water from the Great Salt Lake,” said Dr Perry.
As the lake continues to shrink, the consequences of such policies are ringing alarm bells. A study by researchers at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah and Middlebury College in Vermont showed that 90 percent of the dust on the Wasatch front came from dry lake beds.
“There is a potential for very significant impact of this dust on our population,” said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Air Quality Division, referring to the dry areas of the Great Salt Lake. .
At the same time, demand for water is skyrocketing in Utah as its population grows. While the entire state is in severe drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, many Salt Lake City homeowners maintain lush lawns.
Utah contrasts with other parched western states that have acted more aggressively to limit water use, such as Nevada, which this year banned “non-functional” grass, including some lawns. . Governor Spencer Cox recently said he was studying the possibility of similar measures in Utah.
Despite concerns about the water supply and the Great Salt Lake, Utah’s water use dwarfs that of many other states, including other arid climates. Sarah Null, professor of watershed studies at Utah State University, said the state uses about 150 to 200 gallons per day per person.
Still, Jaimi Butler, coordinator of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, said the already dire air quality readings were going to get worse. “All of this is happening while we are not yet really seeing the effects of climate change,” she said.