Last summer, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observed dust blows 85 miles from its source, Lake Abert and Summer Lake, two dried up saline lakes in southern Oregon. This has happened before: saline lake bottoms are some of the main sources of dust in the West. California’s Owens Lake is the country’s largest source of PM10, the tiny pollutants found in dust and smoke, as plumes billowing from the Great Salt Lake’s 800 square miles of exposed bottom spark poison-filled dust storms in Salt Lake City have caused.
Salt lakes are rapidly losing water due to climate change and agricultural and urban use, making them some of the West’s most endangered ecosystems. Now new legislation offers some support. On December 27, President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan agreement Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act, which is allocating $25 million in funding for research and monitoring at saline lakes in the Great Basin. While this funding is an important step, it cannot give the lakes what they really need: more water.
The inner west is full of salt lakes, created when snowmelt pools formed in the valley floors of the Basin and Range region. The valleys have no outflow, so the water remains until it evaporates, leaving behind the particles suspended in it. These accumulate over time, giving the lakes a high salinity.
“It creates a unique system that supports brine shrimp and alkali flies that can feed incredible populations of migratory birds,” said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, which aims to preserve Oregon’s high desert, including Summer Lake and Lake Abert. .
But this balance of runoff, salts and evaporation also makes saline lakes very sensitive to climate change. Due to the decreasing snow cover and increasing evaporation due to higher temperatures, there is less water in the lakes and a higher salt concentration. That stresses shrimp and flies, which have adapted over time to specific salinities, and it also exposes dry soils, creating dangerous dust storms.
Decades of diversions for agricultural and municipal use have also drained the lakes’ water. California’s Owens Lake, for example, has been almost completely dry for nearly a century since water was diverted to Los Angeles. A report released this month across Utah, scientists and conservation groups warned that the combination of water diversion and climate change has put the Great Salt Lake on track to disappear within five years.
Many see poor air quality as the main reason for saving the lakes. But the dust is a sign that the entire ecosystem is wilting. Salt lakes are important stops on the Pacific Flyway, the bird migration route that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia, Chile. “That we’re concerned about dust tells me we’re already past the point of Lake Abert being lost as part of the Pacific Flyway, its main ecological asset,” Houston said. More than 80 bird species live there or migrate through Lake Abert, and 338 species depend on the Great Salt Lake.