‘Not much time left’: Salt Lake City’s mayor on the Great Lake drying up
Erin Mendenhall was once an environmental activist, campaigning for clean air. Now, in a fitting but grim twist, she is the mayor of a fast-growing US city that faces being enveloped by a huge toxic cloud of dust.
Mendenhall, who is 42, became animated by the issue of air pollution after learning that the air quality in Salt Lake City had become so bad from cars, trucks and industry that it could take two years off the life of her newborn son. In 2010, she co-founded a non-profit group, called Breathe Utah, before embarking upon a political career that saw her become Salt Lake City’s mayor in 2020. “I had to do something [about the air pollution] or move,” she says.
But her city has now been thrust to the precipice of what Ben Abbott, an ecologist at the local Brigham Young University, calls “one of the worst environmental disasters in modern US history”, with the rapidly shrinking Great Salt Lake, just a short distance from the city, leaving behind a lakebed laced with arsenic, mercury and other toxins. The wind is already beginning to pick up these toxins in airborne plumes that will only grow as the lake, which could disappear within five years, recedes further.
Summers marked by roiling, poisonous clouds sweeping in off the lake is something that “of course worries me”, says Mendenhall. A host of respiratory, cardiac and cancer-related problems could be stirred through the city’s 200,000-strong population, which is part of a broader string of urban and suburban development of 2.8 million people wedged between the lake and the Wasatch mountain range in Utah.
“It’s up to us and the state of Utah to make massive sweeping changes or else the west side of Salt Lake City moving into the downtown and up to the benches where the air hits the wall of our foothills will be toxic,” says Mendenhall.
“We already know our air quality takes lives or shortens lives, which was that first moment of action for me with my newborn. This is a challenge unlike anything we’ve grappled with as air quality advocates. But I don’t feel fear in an incapable sense.”
It is “perhaps a little ironic” that Mendenhall has been plunged into an unfolding air pollution catastrophe given her history, says Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the group Friends of Great Salt Lake. “Erin is a champion of air quality and understands the issues we face here,” she adds. “We do use a lot of water here, which is embarrassing as we are in the desert, but you get the feeling the city wants to be part of the solution.”
The looming air pollution nightmare is a jarring one considering how desirable Salt Lake City has become for many Americans. The city is one of the fastest growing in the US, with the population of Utah as a whole growing by more than 18% in the past decade, more than any other state. The city is a draw for the arts, education, banking and the outdoors, with some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the US – a torch used in a relay to start the 2002 Winter Olympics hangs outside Mendenhall’s office.
But the city now faces perhaps its greatest crisis since Mormon pioneers arrived here in the mid-19th century. The rampant diversion of water from the rivers that feed the Great Salt Lake, along with a fierce megadrought that is the worst in the US west in 1,200 years, mean that this fabled ecosystem, the largest saline lake in the western hemisphere, has contracted in size by nearly two-thirds.
At risk is not only the health of Salt Lakers, and the economic benefits of the lake, but the environment itself – moisture drawn by clouds from the lake nourishes the ski slopes with falling snow, while the lake’s brine shrimp and flies feed around 10 million migratory birds that use the body of water as a crucial stop-off point.
Mendenhall points to actions the city has taken to reduce its water use, such as encouraging voluntary savings of 2.9bn gallons by residents who forgo watering their lawns, as well as new landscaping ordinances to reduce the amount of thirsty turf in the city and a plan by the mayor to impose a surcharge on heavy water users. The state in 2021 also agreed to send 13bn gallons of the city’s wastewater to be cleaned and returned to the lake.
But Salt Lake City only uses 9% of the water diverted from the lake, meaning such measures are a “teeny tiny drop” of what’s needed, according to Mendenhall, who wants a more fundamental rethink of how water is used in agriculture, which is by far the largest consumer across the US west.
“Certainly the idea of a western lifestyle has to change not only for Great Salt Lake basin residents, but westerners as a whole,” she says. “The south-west is the hardest hit and it will continue to be the hardest hit from the impacts of climate change and water is at the heart of that.
“This is tugging at a thread that the entire south-west of the United States is grappling with. It’s not me, it’s the science is telling us we have to.”
Salt Lake City is very much a liberal blue dot in a red state, a Republican bastion that is wary of upending its agricultural industry. “We’re talking about culture and history and what many Utah communities not only were founded on but are still operating around, which is farms,” says Mendenhall. “The idea of paying farmers not to grow their crops so the water can flow into the lake is not only a tremendous financial concept, but is affecting the culture of rural Utah and our own local food security to some extent.”
Mendenhall said that the Republican super-majority in the Utah legislature understands the threats posed to the city but that “we’ve not yet seen” the requisite action to make drastic changes to the farming practices, such as the growing of alfalfa, that require huge amounts of irrigation. The state’s annual legislative session ends in March.
“There’s not much time left both with the lake and the legislature,” says Mendenhall, who has grown frustrated with more outlandish alternative plans to deal with the crisis, such as an idea floated by some lawmakers to chop down more trees because they suck up water, “the shortsightedness of which is astounding to me”, she says.
With the lake facing terminal decline in just a matter of years, the mayor finds rapidly approaching deadlines wherever she looks. “History won’t have to judge us, not even our kids will have to judge us,” she says. “We will judge ourselves in short order.”