GREAT SALT LAKE, Utah -- One of the world's oldest and largest conservation organizations has decided to invest millions of dollars into a new program located in Salt Lake City with the mission to study and protect salt water lakes around the West, including the Great Salt Lake.
"There's no place on Earth like the Great Salt Lake ecosystem; it's unique," said Deborah Drain, Conservation Chair with Great Salt Lake Audubon.
The National Audubon Society's new Saline Lakes Program aims to protect the waters in California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Mexico because of their role as critical habitat for hundreds of bird species, but they see the birds as indicators of a threatened ecosystem that also threatens human health, especially along the Wasatch Front.
"If the birds and their populations are collapsing, that does tell us what's happening to the ecosystem overall," said Marcelle Shoop, the director of the Saline Lakes Project.
The National Audubon Society is holding it's annual conference in Park City this week, with an eye toward bringing attention to the project.
Ella Sorensen, Manager of the 2,700 acre Audubon Gilmore Sanctuary along the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, took Fox 13 through the normally off-limits preserve to show the impact of lower lake levels.
The Gilmore Sanctuary stretches west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, with wetlands that swell and shrink with the seasons and miles of shoreline along Farmington Bay and Gilbert Bay.
At least, it's supposed to have miles of shoreline. At current lake levels, the sanctuary borders miles of dry lake bed.
Audubon, with help from the Nature Conservancy, has played a role in wetland preservation by negotiating for water rights from the Jordan River. Those rights uniquely targeted to the benefit of birds and other wildlife rather than for irrigation or consumption.
"There's been a 19th-century thought pervasive in Utah that water is wasted if it's dumped in the lake, and that's really not the case," said Great Salt Lake Audubon President Heather Dove.
According to Dove, low Great Salt Lake water levels are not attributable to the natural ebb and flow of precipitation, but rather to continued diversion of water from the earliest pioneer settlement to today.
"It's all from consumption, it's not from changes in precipitation," Dove said.
The environmentalists see a particular irony in the relationship between Utahns and their iconic lake. High water is treated as a major crisis because flooding is so visible and the economic impact so obvious, but it's low lake levels that pose the much bigger threat.
That threat comes from particulate pollution. With hundreds of square miles of lake bed bone dry, it doesn't take much wind to push fine dust east, from the lake to the biggest metropolitan area in the Intermountain West.
"When you see the dust coming off the lake, it is not a good thing because it's full of heavy metals," Drain said. "The PM 2.5 gets in your lungs and they really impact people with asthma."