Wildlife, air quality at risk as Great Salt Lake nears low — The Associated Press

Sunset from the western shore of Antelope Island State Park, Great Salt Lake, Utah, United States.. Sunset viewed from White Rock Bay, on the western shore of Antelope Island. Carrington Island is visible in the distance. By Ccmdav – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2032320

From The Associated Press (Lindsay Whitehurst). Click through and read the whole article and for the photographs. Here’s an excerpt:

For years, though, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River has been shrinking. And a drought gripping the American West could make this year the worst yet.

The receding water is already affecting the nesting spot of pelicans that are among the millions of birds dependent on the lake. Sailboats have been hoisted out of the water to keep them from getting stuck in the mud. More dry lakebed getting exposed could send arsenic-laced dust into the air that millions breathe…

The lake’s levels are expected to hit a 170-year low this year. It comes as the drought has the U.S. West bracing for a brutal wildfire season and coping with already low reservoirs. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, has begged people to cut back on lawn watering and “pray for rain.”

For the Great Salt Lake, though, it is only the latest challenge. People for years have been diverting water from rivers that flow into the lake to water crops and supply homes. Because the lake is shallow — about 35 feet (11 meters) at its deepest point — less water quickly translates to receding shorelines…

The waves have been replaced by dry, gravelly lakebed that’s grown to 750 square miles (1,942 square kilometers). Winds can whip up dust from the dry lakebed that is laced with naturally occurring arsenic, said Kevin Perry, a University of Utah atmospheric scientist.

Smog blankets Salt Lake City. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons.

It blows through a region that already has some of the dirtiest wintertime air in the country because of seasonal geographic conditions that trap pollution between the mountains…

Luckily, much of the bed of Utah’s giant lake has a crust that makes it tougher for dust to blow. Perry is researching how long the protective crust will last and how dangerous the soil’s arsenic might be to people…

Most years, the Great Salt Lake gains up to 2 feet (half a meter) from spring runoff. This year, it was just 6 inches (15 centimeters), Perry said.

“We’ve never had an April lake level that was as low as it was this year,” he said.

More exposed lakebed also means more people have ventured onto the crust, including off-road vehicles that damage it, Great Salt Lake coordinator Laura Vernon said…

Brine shrimp support a $57 million fish food industry in Utah but in the coming years, less water could make the salinity too great for even those tiny creatures to survive.

American White Pelicans flying in formation. Photo credit Missouri Department of Conservation.

“We’re really coming to a critical time for the Great Salt Lake,” said Jaimi Butler, coordinator for Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. She studies the American white pelican, one of the largest birds in North America.

They flock to Gunnison Island, a remote outpost in the lake where up to 20% of the bird’s population nests, with male and female birds cooperating to have one watch the eggs at all times.

“Mom goes fishing and dad stays at the nest,” Butler said.

But the falling lake levels have exposed a land bridge to the island, allowing foxes and coyotes to come across and hunt for rodents and other food. The activity frightens the shy birds accustomed to a quiet place to raise their young, so they flee the nests, leaving the eggs and baby birds to be eaten by gulls.

Utah Rivers map via Geology.com

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