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As the Great Salt Lake shrinks, toxic dust storms become a growing threat

A dry section of the great salt lake with a broken salt crust.
(Siddarth Machado / Flickr Creative Commons)
A dry section of the great salt lake with a broken salt crust.

News brief: 

The Great Salt Lake shrunk to historic lows this year and water levels continue to drop. The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River supports mineral extraction, recreation, brine shrimp and migratory birds. Now, the resource is threatened due to drought conditions fueled by climate change, over-allocation of water rights and growth on the Wasatch Front.

One large impact of this ecological crisis is the increasing prevalence of dust storms spreading toxins from the lake. As the lakebed becomes more exposed, a stiff breeze can kick up remnants of mining and other human activities, meaning nearby residents could be breathing dangerous metals like arsenic and copper.

Adrian Hunolt ranches in southwest Wyoming about 90 miles from the lake’s shrinking shores. He lives on the Bear River, the largest tributary to the Great Salt Lake, and feels a connection to northern Utah’s changing ecosystems.

“So this valley will fill up with dust, especially in the spring when it starts blowing,” he said. “It looks like smoke. And we come out in the morning and our vehicles have all got that white ash looking stuff that blows off the Great Salt Lake on them.”

Some Utah health groups want more air quality monitors to further study these dust storms' health effects.

State and federal lawmakers are also looking into ways to save the Great Salt Lake through water conservation programs and other incentives.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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