salt lake

A large body of water with a high salt content, situated in a sere landscape, with no outlet to the sea, is known as a salt lake. Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the shrunken remnant of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, is so salty a swimmer can float on its surface without effort. In her poem “Salt Air,” Sharon Bryan writes: “You cannot sink into this 25 percent solution,/it hosts no life but the microscopic/brine shrimp’s, which must trace a narrow path/through blazing crystal knives.” In his essay “The World’s Strangest Sea,” Wallace Stegner described Great Salt Lake as a thin horizon line “of quicksilver, of lead, of improbable turquoise, of deep-sea cobalt, or of molten metals, depending on the conditions of the day.” Because it’s part of a closed system (the Great Basin), Great Salt Lake rises if rainfall exceeds the rate of evaporation and recedes if evaporation exceeds rainfall. This shifting shoreline plays havoc with local roads. The Salton Sea, created in 1905–1907 when the Colorado River burst through poorly constructed and maintained irrigation controls south of Yuma, Arizona, and flooded an ancient lake depression in the Sonoran Desert in California, is another inland salt sea or saline lake. Mono Lake, near Lee Vining, California, on the rain shadow side of the Sierra Nevada, is an alkaline lake. Here, evaporation concentrates naturally occurring alkali salts that form a thin crust on the surface of the water. Nevada’s Carson Lake, whose waters contain a high concentration of sodium sulfate and lesser amounts of the carbonates and chlorides found in all briny lakes, is the archetype of a bitter lake. Many mineral lakes, strangely to some, teem with bird life. In Salt Dreams, William deBuys’s finely observed account of the Salton Sea, he describes the mismanagement of water, the response to cycles of drought, and the population and development pressures that are a part of the social history of the West’s mineral lakes.

Terry Tempest Williams