The Great Salt Lake shrinking.

Park visitors walk along a section of the Great Salt Lake that used to be underwater at the Great Salt Lake State Park on August 2, 2021 near Magna, Utah.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Complaint of the Great Salt Lake

I’m down to 900 square miles now; I’ve been told that if things stay this way, I’ll be gone in five years.

I have a story for you this April about how your tax dollars work. It may not be obvious at the start, but be patient. I need to tell it to you before it’s too late.

In the old days, my waters filled 3,000 square miles, and the streams flowing to me from the Wasatch Mountains kept me full. Along my banks were millions of brine flies that would get into people’s teeth, but the flies fed the birds and the birds fed any creatures willing to hunt them. Though my waters were unfit for people to drink and would pickle any washing in them, there was salt there worth people’s taking. The Shoshone and Ute who visited me took what they needed and otherwise left me alone. It was hard for them to live near me anyway, but we got along. They respected me, and I stayed full.

After a while, the Mormons came, fleeing campaigns of religious cleansing further east. In all his shrewdness, Brigham Young reckoned that no one else would want to settle anywhere near me. You know the rest pretty well. The Mormons were well organized and resourceful enough to build farms along my streams, and they prospered well enough to supply wagon trains going further west to Oregon and California and eventually set up a state. They knew the limits of the land, and for a time, there was no quarrel between the settlers and me.

Once upon a time we got along. No more.

By and by, more settlers arrived. The community grew, and people discovered they could mine my salt and so a commercial industry in salt started. More people came, and industry grew. Motor vehicles followed, with more and more burning of oil and gas. Farmers in the area discovered they could grow high grade alfalfa for export, but that required mechanization and lots of fresh water. As commercial agriculture took more and more water from my streams, the people and I became rivals, and the atmosphere itself began to change.

Utah’s delegation in Congress made sure all this evident prosperity was well supported in Washington. There were plenty of subsidies for the fossil fuels needed to drive this commerce, and for the commerce in armament which grew in size across the nation after 1945. Very few of your lawmakers seemed to mind. The subsidies continued, and the air started to go crazy.

By the 2000s, endless war had begun, and still goes on, along with the Long Drought. There’s less snow in the Wasatch Mountains, and less water in my streams, though no less insistence on it from the alfalfa. Your recent federal effort to rescue the climate, though well-meant, is puny compared to the support your government gives the oil and gas devouring military establishment and the wars it supports in Gaza and Ukraine, where the Earth weeps.

I’m down to 900 square miles now. My waters are less deep. I don’t feel very good, and can’t shake it. I’ve been told that if things stay this way, I’ll be gone in five years. These days, any one of you could count dead birds by the hundreds along my shores, and smell them. The bed on which I now toss and turn has salt in it, but most of it is arsenic-laced toxic dust. When it blows into the air, which it does more and more often, you people breathe it in, especially in the poorest neighborhoods nearest me. Now that the air over Salt Lake City has turned brown, emphysema, Alzheimer’s, and ALS follow. What your leaders call national security makes you sick, and your taxes pay for it, in spite of yourselves.

Once upon a time we got along. No more. Around your country and around the world, you don’t even get along among yourselves, and too many of you have talked yourselves into believing there’s no way out. So much for policy that comes from diseased minds. You sicken, and I die.

Unless you do something about it. I can’t. But you can. No more diseased minds. Wise up. Let Iowa, where the Mormons rested on their way west, grow alfalfa for export. Get free of coal and oil and endless warfare, and maybe the air will be less crazy. Care for one another, because each of you depends on everyone else to meet your needs. Covid-19 should have taught you at least that much.

Even in the Long Drought, there’ll be enough water left in my streams for the rest of your farms, and some for me to drink if you treat my streams with some respect. Once I get well, our quarrels will end. There’ll be no more of my poison dust in the air, and you can take some of my salt for yourselves, just like in the old days. And maybe the Ute and Shoshone will come for a visit.

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