January 04, 2019

Changes Rippling Rare Waters by Mark A. Doherty

A unique form of vision is requisite when we attempt to truly understand Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Where some see vast, empty expanses of lifeless water, others view a broad, painted landscape of reflections, as well as a hemispherical vital migratory ecosystem. Some turn away from a stench in the air, while others revel in salty freshness mixed with microbial phytoplankton, algae, and brine shrimp, all working in complex symbioses. And where some scoff at wastelands of deserted shores, others observe flora and fauna, moving in intricate balances linked to the rise and fall of the largest hypersaline terminal lake in the western hemisphere.

The scale of the Great Salt Lake is best described by our senses as we depart from shore in ocean kayaks. My wife Deborah moves forward in front of me as I stop to photograph the flight of several Great Blue Herons, and when I look again, she is rapidly becoming a speck on a sea of water. The lake’s seventy-five mile by thirty-five mile breadth hides many horizons beneath the curvature of the earth. I cannot see land beyond Deb’s kayak, and now she herself takes up only a tiny fraction of my view. It’s time to catch up.

Beyond Deb’s kayak I see thousands of Eared Grebes that start as dots and meld into a smoke-like haze of life drifting at water level. When I stop and listen, I hear the subdued rushing of wings and webbed feet, of dips and resurfacings. The grebes are feeding on the brine flies and the brine shrimp. Mixed in with the grebes are seagulls, several varieties of ducks, and the occasional cormorant, sailing above the water. It’s migration season, and literally hundreds of species are apt to be visible on this September day.

Deb motions at a pair of Bald Eagles, and I can see a flock of White Pelicans moving far in the distance. We’ve managed to enjoy an hour now without hearing the report of shotgun reverberating across the waters, but I know this serenity will not last. Although I accept hunting, I do not grasp killing. Many, many shooters are there just for the sport, just for the kill. Utah is one of the last states where most outdoorsmen haven’t grasped the notion that one can also shoot wildlife with a camera.

I’m distracted from thoughts on arcane hunting practices when I notice a spit of land exposed that I’ve not seen before. The lake is now only two feet from its lowest level on record. Growing populations, water needs, and drought have wrought other changes. Yet I know that few people consider this lake in the context of Owens Lake, the Aral Sea, or Lake Urmia.

Shortsightedness regarding the Great Salt Lake stems from several factors, one being a dearth of research done on the lake and its greater ecosystem. Science largely overlooked this lake up until the late 1990s. We are learning now, but there is much to know. Why has the Great Salt Lake not been studied more? Some say it’s because there aren’t many terminal lakes, so they don’t attract scientific attention. Others claim that salt lakes are uninteresting, limited in the numbers of species they harbor. And of course vast, shallow salt lakes seem to have little economic impact—money drives science.

But as I paddle forward, I can see the tiny plume of smoke coming from the magnesium plant twenty miles to the west. And I know that to my north, a 45,000 acre evaporation plant is producing six million tons of salt each year. Another company creates vast stores of fertilizer from the lake’s brine shrimp. The lake supplies 1.3 billion dollars in economy to the state, and it provides 7,700 jobs. The lake is rich in life and minerals, and the impacts of harvesting are being felt before the science of the lake is fully understood.

I move alongside Deb and we stroke side by side on glass. It’s a perfectly calm morning. Reflected in the mirror of water are clouds floating above the blue lines of distant mountains. We are paddling through a sublime painting, vast and colorful, ever changing.

“Did you hear the Grebes?” Deb asks.

“Yes, when I stopped to photograph you disappearing in the distance. It was remarkable.”

“There must be thousands of them.”

“Yep. And the eagles, thanks for the heads up.”

We move with even strokes toward our destination: out there somewhere. Soon we’ll stop, five or six miles from shore, and just float for a while, listening to the sounds, soaking up the silences. No other boats are out today. Few boats travel these waters. The salt is hard on motors, the shallow bottom difficult for keels, and at this low, low level, “The World’s Saltiest Sailors” of the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club must hope for rain and snow in the mountains—hope for the lake to rise again.

“I just poked for the bottom. It’s only four feet deep here.”

“Imagine a big windstorm and four foot waves. Or rather, don’t!” she smiles back at me.

We paddle on in silence for a time. “Sure hope this lake doesn’t dry up in my lifetime.”

“Those windstorms we’ve been having with this drought would have some pretty scary minerals to throw around in our air. Gives a new meaning to downwinders doesn’t it?”

“Wow, that’s another factor I hadn’t thought about. I was still on the snow and Ski City USA wavelength.”

Just last week the local news reported two stories in one newscast. The first was the Utah Travel Council vying for the name of Ski City USA, proclaiming as always that the Wasatch Mountains have the greatest snow on earth. The second reported the Bear River Water Conservancy’s plans to divert enough water—220,000 acre feet per year—to cause the lake to drop a foot or more. The irony? The greatest snow comes directly from evaporation of the warm lake lifting over the escarpment of the Wasatch Range. If the lake dries up . . . Ski City might become an ecological misnomer.

It’s difficult to think about economy, jobs, and pressures as we paddle through our painting. I hear a second distant shotgun blast, which sharply focuses reality. I’m grateful for the Division of Wildlife Resources Rangers. They attempt to keep the hunters and poachers away from our beloved Antelope Island State Park, the sanctuary from which we often launch our kayaks while the bison, antelope, and coyotes curiously watch us.

We’ve stopped paddling and are sliding smoothly forward, slowing. Deb has noticed a distant line of darker blue on the water’s surface, maybe a mile off. It’s the first sign of the breeze we expect to come from the North. It’s time to settle on the water for a time. Another flock of birds flies high overhead. They are not geese, but perhaps White Faced Ibis? Deb thinks they are swans and takes out her binoculars. Naturally, she is right.

I look back to Antelope Island, reflected perfectly on the lake’s surface. Another group of cormorants moves over the water, flying inches above the surface. Beyond them I catch the graceful sweep of two Great Blue Herons, gliding with seeming effortlessness. They too seem to be riding a thin cushion of air just above the surface of the water.

I close my eyes and listen to the distant grebes, the even more distant California Gulls on Egg Island. The air is pure and sweet. It’s only along the shores that one smells the chemistry of The Great Salt Lake. Once on the water, it’s as fresh as ocean breezes. This is one more of our little secrets. With my eyes closed, I taste the salt on my lips and feel the slight grittiness of salt on my paddle. When we return today I must wade in and bob like a cork for a few minutes. One can stand straight upright in the water without stroking, without sinking. My swim trunks can later stand by themselves after they dry if I forget to rinse them out.

The breeze has caught us, and tiny riffles appear around our kayaks. Without speaking, we lift our small sails and begin gliding homeward. The gifts of wildlife, solitude, and beauty rest easily in our minds. But how long can this place keep on giving in such a manner? We belong to the conservation organizations: Friends of the Great Salt Lake, Sierra Club, Utah Wilderness. We purchase a state parks pass each year. And yet it seems like we do so little amidst the pressures of industry, hunting, water, development and above all, climate change. And of course we write. At least we can say, if the day dawns with malevolent dusts sweeping a dry lake bottom, at least we can say we did something, and we did it with passion.