‘We’re on the doorstep of a catastrophe’: America’s ‘Dead Sea’ is drying up and releasing arsenic into the air

A megadrought is impacting western US states forcing regions to declare states of emergency and exacerbating wildfires

Gino Spocchia
Sunday 18 July 2021 18:39
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Utah's Great Salt Lake reaching historic low levels

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Water levels in America’s “Dead Sea” are at their lowest in more than half a century as scientists warn of severe knock-on effects for hundreds of species along with threats to human health.

A megadrought is impacting the US West forcing regions to declare states of emergency and exacerbating wildfires.

It has also driven water levels in Utah’s Great Salt Lake to a near 58-year low. The current water level is nearly nine feet lower than the long-term average of the lake.

The lake, dubbed America’s “Dead Sea”, is the largest salt water body in the western hemisphere and larger than its counterpart in the Jordan Rift Valley in the Middle East.

Environment officials warn of severe knock-on effects for wildlife that could last for years to come.

Utah’s Department of Natural Resources said this week that microbialites, “living rocks” on the lake bottom that are food for brine flies and shrimp, would dry up within weeks of a historic-low water line, putting the whole ecosystem at risk.

While the microbialites take only weeks to die, ”it takes several years of higher lake level before the microbial mat can recover”, said Michael Vanden Berg, a energy and minerals program manager at Utah Geological Survey.

Kevin Perry, chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, explained that more birds breed at Great Salt Lake than anywhere else in the US.

More than 300 varieties of bird can be seen at the lake.

“Our studies show the whole lake system, including the ten million migrating birds, depend on microbialites,” said Dr Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. “Without these critical structures, impacts will be amplified up the food chain.”

Mr Perry told CNN that as the long-term drought dries out Utah’s soil, arsenic found there could be picked up by the wind and cause respiratory problems for humans. The chemical element, and a toxin, often washes downstream and lands in the lake, from where fierce winds can kick up dust.

"One of the concerns we have is the particles that are coming off the lake getting into people's lungs," he said. "Fifteen to 20 years ago, when the lake was higher, most of these dust spots were covered up, and if you cover them up with water, they don't produce dust. And so as the lake has receded, it's exposed more and more of that lake bed. ... As we get the larger area, we have more frequent dust storms."

He added that the lake “could become one of the larger dust emission sources in North America as well”.

Despite the environmental warnings, water will continue to be diverted from Great Salt Lake to farms, ranches and cities — some of which enjoy the cheapest water anywhere in the US, said ecology researcher and a coordinator at the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, Jaimi Butler.

"Keeping water in Great Salt Lake is the biggest thing that keeps me up at night," she told CNN. "We're on the doorstep of a catastrophe."

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