The Great Salt Lake as a public health hazard
There has been increasing media coverage in recent years resulting in growing awareness around the human health implications of the shrinking Great Salt Lake. It is becoming known among Utahns that the drying lakebed will soon become a public health hazard due to hazardous chemicals that have been recklessly discharged into the lake for decades by valley homeowners and businesses. The lake has never been under greater threat, and the health of the lake is inseparable from our own.
The Great Salt Lake Advisory Council states that the lake contributes $1.3 billion to Utah’s economy annually. It supports the ski industry by extending the season 5-7 weeks each year, and is responsible for up to 10% of snowfall east and south of the lake. Its presence is an essential aspect of the watershed in Northern Utah. Most importantly, everyone living along the Wasatch Front requires the lake for their drinking water.
Supporting over 80% of Utah’s wetlands, the Great Salt Lake is the heart of our ecosystem. The lake ensures the flourishing of wildlife of all kinds and provides a home for millions of birds. It has significant hemispheric importance for ecosystems beyond our local region as it serves as a stopover for millions more migratory birds.
The lake is made up of half snowmelt and half precipitation. Both snowmelt and precipitation are determined by how much water is in the lake. When snowmelt in rivers is directed away from the lake for agriculture use, it is less likely to remain in our local region to ensure a robust water cycle.
As the lake dries up, it becomes a source of fine dust with high concentrations of toxic heavy metals and other chemicals which can travel great distances in wind storms, which are detrimental to human health when inhaled. As water levels continue to drop, unsafe levels of lead and arsenic (among many others) will contaminate our air and the Wasatch Front may become unlivable. The health of the lake and its impact on human health cannot be overstated.
Nan Seymour and the 47-day vigil
Local activist Nan Seymour calls herself a ‘lake-facing poet’. She is the founder of the River Writing collective and was the ‘poet-in-residence’ for the Antelope Island vigil first held during the 2022 Utah State Legislative session. Nan and her writing community are preparing to lead another vigil from January 16th to March 4th, corresponding with the 47-day 2023 Utah State Legislative session.
They will be camping at the lakeshore full-time and offering visitors activities like writing workshops, walks to the water, daily meditations, talks with master naturalists and scientists, and sunset rituals. Last year the activists and visitors collectively authored a 2580-line poem entitled ‘Irreplaceable’.
In an interview, she shared that, “There’s concern across the board that as the lake continues drying up, human health will suffer as our air becomes contaminated with toxic dust. Our lake ecosystem is already dying due to increasing salinity levels. Brine flies are in an active state of collapse. Microbialites are exposed. Great Salt Lake scientists agree that we have less than two years to turn things around before we lose the life force of the lake and the heart of the Great Basin dies.”
She finds it hard to talk about and yet says it plainly, “It’s more than just dust. We have to think about the vitality of the ecosystem we live in and how it’s all connected.”
“I am working to cultivate a culture of reverence toward water and to encourage a relationship of reciprocity” says Nan. She hopes that we will establish and uphold the legal personal rights of the rivers and lakes that make up our watershed so they can obtain at least equal legal footing with corporations.
“Water bodies have a right to be restored, to flourish, to live out their lives in a natural way, and to evolve in a natural way.” Nan hopes we will legally recognize them for their intelligence, sentience, and sovereignty.
“We are interdependent with the health and vitality of water. We have no future without it.”
What can you do?
You can participate by joining activists at Antelope Island during the vigil. Nan warmly invites everyone to join their writing workshops and to go on nature hikes with them. All are welcome to join in a 20-minute meditation broadcast from the lakeshore at 7am daily during the vigil. Read more about the vigil and view the calendar of events here.
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