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By Terry Tempest Williams
Photographs by Fazal Sheikh
Ms. Williams is a writer who lives in Utah and grew up near Great Salt Lake. Mr. Sheikh is an artist engaged in a long-term project on environmental damage in the Southwest.
From a distance, it is hard to tell whether the three figures walking the salt playa are human, bird or some other animal. Through binoculars, I see they are pelicans, juveniles, gaunt and emaciated without water or food. In feathered robes, they walk with the focus of fasting monks toward enlightenment or death.
This was not a dream or a nightmare, but the first time I realized Great Salt Lake was in danger of disappearing. It was the fall of 2016.
The lake’s Gunnison Island has been a sanctuary to one of the largest white pelican rookeries in North America, with as many as 20,000 nesting individuals. The watery distance from the island to the mainland has protected the pelicans from predators. Now, young pelicans are easy prey for coyotes crossing the land bridge created as the waters receded.
Most likely spooked by coyotes, the adolescent pelicans fled the island, but their wings were not strong enough to fly the miles to fresh water for fish. Forced down by fatigue, they were dying from hunger and thirst. Walking behind them at a respectful distance felt like a funeral procession. I passed 60 salt-encrusted bodies stiff on the salt flats, hollow bones protruding from crystallized clumps of feathers, wings splayed like fans waving in the heat.
I have known Great Salt Lake in flood and now in drought; between her highest level at 4211.8 feet in 1987 and her lowest at 4188.5 feet in 2022. Maps and newspapers call her the Great Salt Lake, but to me, she’s Great Salt Lake.
For 13,000 years, the lake has existed with no outlet to the sea, her large deposits of salt left behind through evaporation. Lately, evaporation from heat and drought accelerated by climate change, combined with overuse of the rivers that feed it, have shrunk the lake’s area by two-thirds. A report out of Brigham Young University and other institutions earlier this year warned that the contraction has been quickening since 2020 and that if we do not take emergency measures immediately, Great Salt Lake will disappear in five years.
Already, Great Salt Lake presents us with a chronicle of death foretold: the collapse of an entire salt desert ecosystem of reefs that foster the life cycle of brine flies and shrimp, that in turn support more than 10 million migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway; of a sacred landscape for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and the Paiute and Ute Nations; of a $1.5 billion per year mineral extraction industry; of a $80 million brine shrimp industry; of a $1.4 billion ski industry dependent on powder snow from the “lake effect.”
Great Salt Lake’s death and the death of the lives she sustains could become our death, too. The dry lake bed now exposed to the wind is laden with toxic elements, accumulated in the lake over decades. On any given day, dust devils are whipping up a storm in these “hot spots,” blowing mercury and arsenic-laced winds through the Wasatch Front where 2.6 million people dwell, with Salt Lake City at its center. Arsenic levels in the lake bed are already far higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation for safety. And with the state’s population projected to grow to 5.5 million people by 2060, the urgency to reverse the lake’s retreat will only grow.
Yet I do not believe Utahns have fully grasped the magnitude of what we are facing. We could be forced to leave.
The retreat of Great Salt Lake is not a singular story. Death is what happened to vast stretches of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan by the late 2010s, now seen as one of the planet’s largest environmental disasters. Pick your place anywhere in the world and Great Salt Lake is a mirror reflecting a flashing light on what is coming and what is already here. Our natural touchstones of joy will deliver us to heartbreak. Each of us will face the losses of the places that brought us to life.
Utah is my home. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints raised me to care about community in the fullness of Creation. We were taught through sacred texts, The Pearl of Great Price, among them: “For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” Great Salt Lake had a spirit before she had a body. Brine shrimp have a spirit. White pelicans and eared grebes have a spirit. They are loved by God as we are loved.
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