Skip to main content

Davis Journal

The consequences of a dried-up Great Salt Lake

Jun 06, 2024 09:54AM ● By Braden Nelsen
A dry lakebed, or playa, where the Great Salt Lake once was. This AI-generated image shows a chilling future. AI image

A dry lakebed, or playa, where the Great Salt Lake once was. This AI-generated image shows a chilling future. AI image

Editors note: This is part two of a two-part series about what would happen if the Great Salt Lake were allowed to dry up.

The first section of “What would happen without the Great Salt Lake?” (May 24 edition) brought up issues of environment, ecosystem, and livability that would all be affected by the loss of the lake. Examples of wildlife that would suffer, or boom because of the lake were addressed, and the similarities between the Salton Sea, and the Great Salt Lake were also introduced.

This brings up the next point: local economy. The people running the resorts at the Salton Sea likely thought they had found their golden goose. Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and other huge names of the era all performed and stayed there, but, less than 30 years later, the glitz and glamour were gone, leaving behind a toxic husk of what once was. With a different climate than the Imperial Valley in California, the Salt Lake Valley might have a different fate, but, the similarities would be dire.

The lake effect snow, which contributes 10% to the nearby ranges, including several ski resorts would no longer be in effect. This would mean on a dry, or lean water year, there would be at least 10% less snow in the mountains, and no one wants to do a ski trip without any snow. Word on social media would spread fast, and the income that so many depend on from ski tourism would take a significant dive.

Tourism for other spots along the Wasatch Front would also likely take a hit, due to the potentially, and likely toxic air that would be caused by the dry lakebed, and the lack of 10% of snowstorms to clear out a winter inversion. If the Salton Sea experience is any indication, pulmonary disease, and conditions like asthma would rise for those living here, and all small businesses, who depend on tourist spikes, would take a severe hit.

Some have advocated that the lakebed be paved and developed to prevent these particulates, but that, in and of itself would create significant problems. The machinery needed to pave the lakebed would churn up the dust releasing all those particulates into the air, not gradually, but all at once, which, may or may not be worse. But, what if they hose it down? There’s a whole new set of problems.

While hosing down the toxic soil would go a long way to tamp down the particulates, the act of spraying water on it would still kick up minor amounts, and then, there’s the copious amount of water that would be used in covering the entire lakebed. Thousands of gallons would be expended in this effort, and would just evaporate. In a high desert, prone to drought year after year Utah can’t afford to be so cavalier with water. 

Then there’s the cost. Figuring in the roughly 950 square miles of area that the Great Salt Lake covers, and an average cost of concrete at $8 per square foot, with another $8 for labor (if you calculate based on one square foot an hour, which is being extremely generous), that puts the total cost to the state at $423,751,680,000. Put in perspective, the entirety of the World War II cost the United States $4 trillion in modern dollars. Are Utahns willing to spend more than the entire war on paving the lake bed instead of just saving the lake?

It goes without saying that there would be many other significant consequences of the Great Salt Lake drying up, but the points illustrated in these articles should paint a vivid picture of the bleak future it would create. The benefits of saving the Great Salt Lake are myriad, and, like making wise financial investments, will pay dividends for generations to come. Every generation says that they want to make the world a better place for the rising generation, and this is one way to prove it: current Utahns have the power to not only ensure an economically healthy Wasatch Front, but one in which future generations can literally breathe easier.