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Impact of Great Salt Lake Dust on People of Color
Impact of Great Salt Lake Dust on People of Color

Editor’s Note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions-based journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to inform people about the Great Salt Lake’s plight.

The Great Salt Lake’s 800-square-mile exposed floor is disproportionately affected by pollution among Pacific Islanders and Hispanics, according to a new study from the University of Utah.

A study published June 21 in the journal One Earth suggests that restoring the lake to healthy water levels would reduce disparities in health-damaging dust exposure among different ethnic and socioeconomic groups, as well as provide other environmental and economic benefits.

“People here in Utah are concerned about the lake for a variety of reasons – the ski industry, the brine shrimp, migratory birds, recreation – and this study also brings the issues of environmental justice and the equity implications of the drying lake into the discussion,” says lead author Sara Grineski, professor of sociology and environmental studies.

Grineski led an interdisciplinary team of Utah faculty members affiliated with the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy.

The researchers focused on dust pollution from wind events in 2022: April 19, 20 and 21, and May 7, when peak recorded PM2.5 levels coincided with strong winds.

During dust storms, residents are currently exposed to an average of 26 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) of PM2.5, the study found. That’s well above the World Health Organization’s limit of 15 μg/m3. If the lake were to dry up completely, pollution could rise to 32 micrograms per meter. Restoring the lake could reduce pollution to 24 micrograms per meter during these wind events, the study found.

Derek Mallia, a research assistant professor of atmospheric sciences, developed a model to predict exposure levels in Weber, Davis and Utah counties, potentially affecting 1.8 million people.

“We have to use weather models because we can’t physically go out to the lake and remove/add water to see how much more/less dust it would release,” Mallia said. “Models like the one I developed allow us to play out these hypothetical scenarios.”

As part of the scenarios, researchers examined the impacts of a completely dry lake bed, a very low lake level, the current lake level and a “healthy” lake level, described as 4,200 feet above sea level. The South Arm of the lake is currently at 4,194.4 feet, nearly 6 feet higher than the historic low of 4,188.7 feet recorded in late 2022.

Healing for what can torment anyone

“We’re looking at it the other way around. Lake levels are rising, overall dust levels are falling during dust events, and the gap, particularly between Hispanics and Pacific Islanders, is narrowing compared to the dust levels of non-Hispanic whites,” Grineski said. “If we take better care of the lake, dust levels will go down for everyone and the gap between those groups will also be narrowing.”

Due to drought and diversions, the lake has shrunk to half its size, threatening migratory birds, lake-dependent industries and public health.

Not only is the lake part of Utah’s cultural identity and history, but it is also an economic engine, contributing an estimated $1.9 billion to the state’s economy, according to the state’s website.

The lake is dependent on snowpack, and while water levels have risen in some good years, there is a constant battle for further diversions, uncertainty about how water supplies will fare in future years, and whether time is on the side of policymakers, advocates, and others hoping for a change of course.

A Utah State University analysis included in the appendix of the Great Salt Lake Strategic Plan says that in a year with average snow cover, the lake would need an additional average of 471,000 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough to cover a football field with one foot of water. In a drought year, that would require a million acre-feet of additional water to bring the lake to an elevation of between 4,198 and 4,205 feet.

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By Isla