Dear People: An Open Letter From the Great Salt Lake

Posted by Jeff Roche on

Hello. Though it’s likely that introductions are not necessary—you know me and I know you—I will do my best to adhere to your social norms in hopes that if I do things your way, you will better hear what I have to say. My name is the Great Salt Lake. Some of you refer to me as America’s Dead Sea. While I understand the reference, I am writing to you now because, in fact, I am not dead. Not yet. But I am dying. 

Photo: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash

It is perhaps easiest to chart my health decline in decades. In the 1980s, I was 3,300 square miles. Today I am 1,000 square miles. I have lost 66% of my footprint these past 40 years. If you saw the body weight of someone you cared about go from 150 to 50 pounds, would you not know that something was terribly wrong? Would you not recognize that this person was very ill? Would you look after them and try to help or would you look the other way?

I have had many friends of varied elements and species over the course of my 11,000-year life since evolving from my origins as Lake Bonneville, but recently, I have watched as they have changed their behavior toward me. Up until not long ago, I always felt very supported by my river friends, Bear, Weber, and Jordan, as well as several smaller streams. But they have stopped coming over like they used to. Diverted for drinking water and agricultural irrigation, they tell me they are giving me all they can and that’s all they can do. I don’t blame them. I’m a quiet gal. I don’t say much. I see that those who speak the loudest or are most aggressive get what they want, and people are louder and more aggressive. (My brine shrimp friends call this Darwinism, which is brave I think, because they themselves are at the cusp of dying out in my waters.)

For centuries, the winter gods have looked down on me favorably. They have always blessed me with rain and snow from November to April each year. This has helped me endure the summer when I bake in the heat from May to October. I’ve noticed, though, that has been changing too. The sky gives me less and the hot time is more intense. 

To get my news, I primarily rely on the more than 10 million migratory birds that stop by annually. They are chatty. My friends the Western Sandpipers tell me that the climatic patterns are drastically shifting. The Red-necked Phalaropes call this climate change. The Long-billed Dowitchers call it global warming. It is stressing them out. This has me concerned.

Upset, I put a call into my friend in California, Owens Lake. Though I hadn’t spoken to him in a hundred years, that is no time for lakes like us. Owens is dead. The people of Los Angeles sucked every ounce of him. They turned him into nothing but a dry bed. 

Big lakes like us are not supposed to die, but Owens is dead. This shocked me to my depths. I see now, without a doubt, that I can die too. I am dying now and I know it. That is why I am finally speaking up. 

I know you think in terms of yourselves and so I will make this relevant to you. What happens if I die?  What happens if I go bone dry?

I have some people friends too. They tell me that Owens is now a salt flat full of my friend’s mineral remains. The wind stirs up noxious alkali dust storms that carry away as much as four million tons of dust from his lakebed each year. My friends say that this is the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States. But what is worse is that this dust includes high levels of cancer-causing chemicals, including arsenic, that sicken and even kill people and animals. Arsenic? My bed contains arsenic. 

Owens was small compared to me. In his glory days, he was 12 miles long and 8 miles wide, covering 108 square miles. I have already told you about my size and how much I have withered. My death bed would be 18 times Owens’. It is horrible to contemplate but I must say it: the wind blows here too.

My people friends also tell me that I help create “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” They tell me that I am a crucial economic contributor to the region. My waters protect the health and quality of our air. I know that the green belt I fostered is the reason settlers came here in the first place. “This is the place,” they said, and they came in droves. And now, here I am. I am the last of my kind and I am dying. So I am speaking up now.

You. People. I am talking to you. I lived for thousands of years without you but now you are my only hope. And it’s important that you listen because my death has the potential to be the precursor to your own fewer and less epic ski days, your own diminished water supply, your own temperature and breathing discomfort. My death will eventually lead to your own displacement and sickness and even death. This matters. I matter. To you. Stand up for yourself and for me. Be a leader or talk to your leaders. Make government pay attention. If you are a legislator, do right. Make those who protect their individual interests at the expense of the whole stop.

If your life is important to you, mine is too. Go do something about this.

Here is the contact information my dear friends. They will help you make change.

Friends of the Great Salt Lake

They share a comprehensive list of government agencies, organizations, and businesses involved in helping me here. 

To see what news organizations are saying about my drying status, click here. 

This was a hard letter to write, but I had to speak. Thank you for reading. And thank you for sharing this with anyone else who will listen. I have to believe that you will help. 

Yours until the day I die,

The Great Salt Lake


Images source: Bryan Tarnowski, The New York Times, “As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up, Utah Faces an “Environmental Nuclear Bomb,’” published June 7, 2022

Reference: Flavelle, Christopher. As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up, Utah Faces an ‘Environmental Nuclear Bomb.’The New York Times, June 7, 2022, updated Sept. 22, 2022


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