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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2009

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The Great Salt Lake: America’s Aral Sea?

The Aral Sea in central Asia achieved international notoriety in the 1990s as an icon of environmental degradation due to water mismanagement. Massive irrigation projects, begun in the early 1960s, diverted water out of the rivers feeding the Aral Sea, causing it to dry up over the following decades, losing 90 percent of its volume and 74 percent of its surface area between 1960 and 2006. Images of the contracting shoreline and photographs of fishing boats stranded in the desert caught the attention of scientists, politicians, environmental activists, international organizations, and the news media. The shrinking sea and drying wetlands devastated the local economy and ecology, and loose sediments from the exposed Aral Sea bed were blown into pesticide-laced salt and dust storms that damaged crops, plants, and the health of humans and animals to distances of some 300 miles downwind. Water quality in the areas around the Aral Sea plummeted. Even the typically restrained academic literature used terms like “disaster,” “catastrophe,” and “tragedy” to describe the Aral Sea situation. Although some small-scale amelioration efforts have been successful, the most serious problems continue to the present day.

The Aral Sea’s degradation has often been invoked as a parable: what lessons does the Aral Sea situation hold for other, similar places? One body of water that has much in common with the Aral Sea is the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah, located in the heart of the United States’ arid intermountain west. The Great Salt Lake is the largest lake in the United States west of the Mississippi, and the fourth-largest saline lake in the world. It is a unique environment, providing refuge for vast numbers of migratory waterfowl and resident shorebirds, as well as economically valuable salts and brine shrimp eggs. Birdwatchers use the parks and wildlife refuges on its shores and islands, and adventurous recreational opportunities are available for sailors and kayakers. Art aficionados willing to travel to the remote north shore can view and interact with the Spiral Jetty, an internationally famous work of “Earth art” built by Robert Smithson in 1970. Another artist deeply affected by the lake, author and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, a Utah native, writes, “Great Salt Lake: wilderness adjacent to a city; a shifting shoreline that plays havoc with highways; islands too stark, too remote to inhabit; water in the desert that no one can drink. It is the liquid lie of the West.”

Because the Great Salt Lake shares with the Aral Sea particularly striking similarities in terms of climatic and hydrological characteristics, the Aral Sea can shed light on the future water management challenges facing the Great Salt Lake in response to population growth and a likely regional climate shift toward drier conditions. The Great Salt Lake is not alone in the western United States in facing this combined squeeze on water resources from increased demand and decreased supply. Could it become an icon of twenty-first century American water problems in the same way that the Aral Sea became an icon of global water problems in the twentieth century? The Great Salt Lake is not yet comparable to the Aral Sea in terms of environmental degradation. However, future water management challenges, a local tendency to undervalue the Great Salt Lake, and discouraging examples from elsewhere in the western United States suggest that there are legitimate reasons to worry that it may be on a similar trajectory.

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