Speed Reads

'environmental nuclear bomb'

Salt Lake City could be plagued by poisonous arsenic-laced dust clouds if Great Salt Lake keeps shrinking

Utah's Great Salt Lake is drying up, there are no easy solutions, and the costs of doing nothing are very steep. "We have this potential environmental nuclear bomb that's going to go off if we don't take some pretty dramatic action," Joel Ferry, a Republican state lawmaker and lakeside rancher, tells The New York Times

The lake has already shrunk by more than two-thirds since the late 1980s, the Times reports. The shrinking lake, with its increasing salinity, could start killing off brine shrimp and flies that feed 10 million migratory birds as early as this summer. 

Utah's ski resorts and mining industry are also at risk, the Times reports. But "most alarming, the air surrounding Salt Lake City would occasionally turn poisonous. The lake bed contains high levels of arsenic and as more of it becomes exposed, wind storms carry that arsenic into the lungs of nearby residents, who make up three-quarters of Utah's population." 

Utah lawmakers and advocates worried about the shrinking lake point to California's former Owens Lake, which Los Angeles drained for its municipal water supply and now, after losing a lawsuit, has spent $2.5 billion to keep from blowing away in deadly dust clouds. 

To avoid a similar fate, residents of Utah's green Wasatch Front — the valley from Provo to Brigham City, with Salt Lake City in the middle —  could divert less of the snowpack runoff it relies on for residential, business, and agricultural use. The rivers fed by the nearby mountains used to replenish the lake, before the area's explosive population growth and climate change took their toll. Or Salt Lake City could raise water prices and take other steps to conserve water.

"Utah's dilemma raises a core question as the country heats up," the Times reports: "How quickly are Americans willing to adapt to the effects of climate change, even as those effects become urgent, obvious, and potentially catastrophic?"

This is especially true across the American West, where severe drought "is a five-alarm crisis," Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) said Tuesday. "When hurricanes and other natural disasters strike the East Coast, or the Gulf states, Washington springs into action to protect those communities," he added. "But we haven't seen anything like that kind of response to the Western water crisis, even though its consequences are far more wide-reaching and sustained than any one natural disaster."