Great Salt Lake’s drying lakebed isn’t ‘toxic’ or the biggest source of dust, experts say

Jun 4, 2024, 4:26 PM | Updated: 4:39 pm

A webcam shows a time-lapse of a dust storm passing through the Salt Lake Valley Wednesday, May 17,...

A webcam shows a time-lapse of a dust storm passing through the Salt Lake Valley Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences/MesoWest)

(University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences/MesoWest)

Dust pollution has been relatively similar in years when lake levels were vastly different, according to data from two different federal agencies. 

NOTE: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at

It’s easy to see dust blowing off the Great Salt Lake, but experts and data say it isn’t as easy to connect the drying lake’s water level to pollution levels.

Dust storms are becoming more common, one scientist said, and that trend is likely to continue.

“With current climate trends and water needs, we’re looking at a drier, dustier future,” said Molly Blakowski, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Utah Water Science Center.

And though dust is tiny — each particle is about one-fifth the width of a strand of human hair — its effects, from worsening visibility to sneezing fits to layers of silt on cars and patios, can be huge.

Dust pollution is connected to the Great Salt Lake, experts said, but the lake isn’t the biggest source of dust in Utah — and it isn’t clear how much dust the lake causes.

But the easiest solution to the dust that does come from the lake is clear, they said: Put more water back.

The lake isn’t the greatest source of Utah’s dust

The Great Salt Lake isn’t the biggest source of dust in Utah, said Kevin Perry, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah who joked he’s been called “Dr. Dust.”

It’s “not even close,” Perry said.

Desert playas where other lakes have already dried up — including the Great Salt Lake Desert to the west of the lake itself — along with gravel operations, construction and drought also cause dust storms.

The Great Salt Lake now generates around 15 dust events a year, possibly more, experts say.

But it’s hard to know for sure, since the exposed lakebed is so large, and the state doesn’t have an extensive monitoring system yet.

Dust is measured as PM10, a shorter way of saying particulate matter less than or equal to 10 micrometers in diameter.

Seven sites in Utah monitor these particles, said Phill Kiddoo, the air pollution control officer for Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District in California.

That’s one-third the number of sites monitoring for smaller particles, known as PM2.5, that build up during inversions and are a bigger concern for public health.

Not a clear connection between lake levels, dust pollution

There also isn’t much information about how lake levels affect dust risks, Blakowski said.

PM10 levels have varied over time, though the average has decreased since 2000, based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lake levels also have decreased in that time, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

Dust pollution has been relatively similar in years when lake levels were vastly different.

For example, the average measurement for coarse particles was 44 in 2001 and 41 in 2008. The lake’s average elevation was about five feet higher in 2001 than in 2008.


Average measurements also were consistently 27 in 2020, 2021 and 2022 even as lake levels dropped to record lows. And the highest average measurement of coarse particles in the current millennia was in 2000.

There’s no doubt the exposed lake bed — more than 800 square miles — produces dust plumes that significantly affect air quality, Perry wrote in a 2019 research report.

Not ‘toxic,’ but a concern

But Utah Rep. Ray Ward, a Republican from Bountiful who’s also a doctor, said he hears more concerns about inversion than he does about dust.

The Great Salt Lake contains arsenic and other metals. Some are naturally occurring, while researchers say others might be human-caused.

Yet even without the lake dust, residents are “very polluted from arsenic in Utah from other sources,” Perry said.

The dust has documented health concerns, but it isn’t toxic, Perry said.

He didn’t dismiss health concerns, but said the word “toxic” causes people to panic.

It’s more accurately a “contaminant of potential concern,” Perry said. That’s a “contaminant which may or may not be causing risk or adverse effects to the plants and animals at a site,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

There’s uncertainty about how much exposure people are getting to arsenic and other potentially harmful contaminants, and about exactly what the dust is doing to the health of millions of people living on the Wasatch Front.

The state needs more monitoring for PM10, Perry said.

More water is the solution

Perry does advocate for saving the Great Salt Lake and increasing water levels, including as a solution for dust.

“The most effective way to prevent dust is to put more water back in the lake,” Perry said.

That’s a lesson learned from California’s Owens Lake, a dry lakebed within the bounds of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District.

Controlling dust from the 50 square miles of lakebed — a small fraction of the Great Salt Lake’s surface area — cost $2.5 billion upfront, Kiddoo said. There’s also an annual cost of $25 million to $50 million, he said.

Utah is at an advantage, Kiddoo said, because the Great Salt Lake still has water.

“At Owens Lake, we haven’t had water for more than 100 years,” he said. “All we’ve had is toxic dust.”

Owens Lake went dry about 13 years after water diversions from Owens River to Los Angeles.

The use of diverted water is the largest cause of the Great Salt Lake drying up, Perry said, though climate change and drought also contribute.

That makes being proactive important, Ward said, because people become accustomed to using a certain amount of water.

“Once people get used to using water, they’re not going to not use that water easily,” Ward said, even if there are other health concerns.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.

KSL 5 TV Live

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Chris Brown, director of stewardship for The Nature of Conservancy, said  cows are helping get rid ...

Karah Brackin

How cows are helping the Great Salt Lake

At the Great Salt Lake, cows are eating away at an invasive species called phragmites, helping native grasses to come back.

4 days ago

Great Salt Lake bed...

Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

Study shows Great Salt Lake dust impacts some communities disproportionately

The 800 square miles of exposed bed of the Great Salt Lake is disproportionately impacts people of color, according to new research by the University of Utah.

13 days ago


Megan Banta, The Salt Lake Tribune

Wildlife are losing habitat at the Great Salt Lake. A nonprofit is working to build some back.

The Nature Conservancy nonprofit has built more than 100 acres of new wetlands in the last few years and has plans for other projects, including a 200-acre project near Syracuse.

14 days ago

rainbow above shallow water and brown plants with mountains and clouds behind...

Ben Winslow, Fox13

Great Salt Lake has likely hit its high mark for the year and will start dropping

The Great Salt Lake has likely peaked, reaching its highest water levels of the year and will start dropping again.

1 month ago

An undated photo of the cross that Christopher "Kit" Carson left on a rock on Fremont Island in 184...

Carter Williams,

Why this explorer’s carving on a Great Salt Lake island rock is now on a historic register

A cross that an explorer etched in stone during a tour of the island nearly 181 years ago is now one of the newest additions to the National Register of Historic Places.

2 months ago

water mirroring sky from boat on Great Salt Lake...

Megan Banta, The Salt Lake Tribune

Here’s how much water is flowing to the Great Salt Lake as the snow melts

About 37% more water is flowing into the Great Salt Lake from its tributaries than in a typical year, according to federal data.

2 months ago

Sponsored Articles

young male technician is repairing a printer at office...

Les Olson

Unraveling the dilemma between leasing and buying office technology

Carefully weigh these pros and cons to make an informed decision that best suits your business growth and day-to-day operation. 

A kitchen in a modern farmhouse....

Lighting Design

A room-by-room lighting guide for your home

Bookmark this room-by-room lighting guide whenever you decide to upgrade your lighting or style a new home.

Photo courtesy of Artists of Ballet West...

Ballet West

The rising demand for ballet tickets: why they’re harder to get

Ballet West’s box office is experiencing demand they’ve never seen before, leaving many interested patrons unable to secure tickets they want.

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 internet safety tips for kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why printer security should be top of mind for your business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Great Salt Lake’s drying lakebed isn’t ‘toxic’ or the biggest source of dust, experts say