Mayor Jenny Wilson starts book/media club to engage community around the Great Salt LakeOct 09, 2023 03:56PM ● By Ella Joy Olsen
“In this world of division; red, blue, old, young. What can we do to come together as a community? What can I do to create a dialogue? Let’s start a book club.” – Mayor Jenny Wilson
In late August, the stage at the Salt Lake City Public Library held some acclaimed names: Utah author and writer-in-residence at Harvard’s Divinity School Terry Tempest Williams, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Ben Abbott, BYU professor of Plant and Wildlife Sciences and the researcher who sounded the alarm about the dire state of the Great Salt Lake.
It was the second meeting of Mayor Jenny Wilson’s Book and Media Club, a community-wide club designed to engage people around a common theme. Up for discussion was a harrowing New York Times article by Williams telling the story of the retreating Great Salt Lake and the repercussions its potential death will have on the valley, the state and the nation, titled, “I Am Haunted By What I’ve Seen At Great Salt Lake.” The link to a PDF of the article can be found at parsintl.com/eprints/115576.pdf
It was a free event, with ticketing/reservations available through the county website. During the club, Wilson led a 90-minute discussion between Williams and Abbott, leaving time for Q&A between panelists and the audience.
“Our body and the body of Great Salt Lake—there is no separation—we too are salt water.” – Author Terry Tempest Williams
Williams grew up in Salt Lake City and found acclaim as a naturalist and environmental writer with the publication of her 1991 memoir, “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.” Since then, she has published many articles and numerous books. She is a writer who draws inspiration from the American West and the arid landscape of Utah.
When the mayor asked Williams about the significance of the lake and her fears about the retreat, Williams indicated it was Abbott’s January 2023 report about the state of the lake that put her (and the world) on notice. “When I read that the lake could disappear in five years, I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
The climate editor at the New York Times also read the report, called Williams and asked for an article of 5,000 words, a length not often granted by the selective publisher. Williams was terrified to write the piece, completing 14 drafts in one month, because she had to tell the hard truth, because, “It had to matter.”
“As the lake goes, so goes our community.” – Professor Ben Abbott
Abbott’s BYU study sounded the alarm about the state of the lake, but his message during the book club was one of action rather than despair or complacency, indicating there should be no divisions between urban and rural, left and right in coming to a solution. The condition of the lake affects everyone. The solution relies on legislation and conservation, and must be enacted now. For a link to the study, pws.byu.edu/GSL%20report%202023.
“The health of all of us depends on this lake,” he said. “I’m talking about our air pollution, our water pollution, our economy, because the Great Salt Lake is not an outlier. We know what will happen.” He was speaking of Owens Lake.
Owens Lake, a saline lake in California, a lake the fraction of the size of the Great Salt Lake and much farther from a community center, dried up due to water diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Before the diversion of the Owens River, Owens Lake covered an area of up to 108 square miles. When the lake dried, it became the single largest source of particulate contamination in the United States. To date, the state of California has spent over $2.5 billion to control the dust, but according to Abbott, “If you look at a map of air quality index, there is still a dark red ring, even today, around that dried lake.”
Compare that to the Great Salt Lake. After years of drought and increased water diversion upstream, the lake fell to its lowest level: 950 square miles. One takeaway? The Great Salt Lake at its lowest level is still 10 times larger than Owens Lake at its highest, with the potential of a much greater impact on our local and regional environment.
“Did the big snow year solve the problem?” – Mayor Jenny Wilson
Because of his faith, Abbott said he does see [the big snow year] as divine intervention. “It gives us a chance to do something, but it has only rewound the clock by one to two years. A solution it is not.”
Water levels at the Great Salt Lake have peaked for 2023. They rose about 5 ½ feet from the record lows of last year. Even with improved water levels, about 50% of the lakebed is still exposed.
Researchers at the University of Utah found that in 2022, the exposed lakebed was responsible for about one-quarter of dust pollution along the Wasatch Front. Additionally, the dust that collected on the snow caused the snowpack to melt more than two weeks earlier than it should have, according to an investigative report on KSL.
“The only way to solve it is to live within our means.” – Professor Ben Abbott
The January report co-authored by Abbott indicates agriculture dominates water use in the Great Salt Lake watershed. Irrigation of alfalfa and other crops directly accounts for around 75% of total consumptive water, plus 5%-10% indirectly through storage and transport losses such as reservoir evaporation. Mineral extraction from the lake itself represents another 9% of water use. Cities and industry account for the final 9% of consumptive water use, of which 90% is outdoor water use (irrigation for lawns and other decorative plants).
Basically, many parties are financially tied to the lake, and the entire Wasatch Front population is reliant on the health of the lake for their own health and the health of their families. Because the stakes are extremely high, participants from all communities need to come together to make changes through conservation efforts and education. Additionally, “We are in a much better place than we were five years ago, as far as legal opportunities go, to take next steps,” Abbott said.
Collaboration and cooperation are needed. “We need to have the grace to believe all sides have the best interest of others in mind,” said Abbott.
There are several organizations attempting to pull the many communities together, to invite people into the conversation, to forge new ideas. Grow the Flow at growtheflowutah.org and Friends of the Great Salt Lake at fogsl.org, are two.
Up Next for The Mayor’s Book and Media Club
While called the Mayor’s Book and Media Club, future events will include discussion about film, story and video, with the intent of creating open and engaging public dialogue. The hope is to hold an event every two to three months.
The next Book and Media Club discussion will be about the documentary film, “Eclipse: The Sun Revealed.” In celebration of the upcoming eclipse, the mayor’s office is providing 200 free tickets to the documentary at the Clark Planetarium. The ticket can be redeemed to any scheduled showing and will include a pair of eclipse viewing glasses.
Then on Oct. 14, the community is invited back to the Gateway Fountain for a live community viewing of the eclipse. Viewers should plan to arrive by 9:30 a.m., as the eclipse happens just after 10 a.m. Afterward, the Clark Planetarium education staff will facilitate a short presentation and discussion. Everyone is invited to the fountain for the eclipse viewing, but tickets for the film and glasses are limited and offered on a first come, first served basis.
For future events keep updated at slco.org/mayor/bookclub. λ