Rhode Island senator touring Utah, talking about climate change

August 9, 2016 GMT

LAYTON — The Great Salt Lake is shrinking, Antelope Island caught on fire earlier this year, and water that used to fill some the marshes at the Great Salt Lake Shoreline Preserve has been sucked into the arid Earth.

A Rhode Island senator saw some of these impacts from a volatile and changing climate during his first stop on a tour through Utah, which will also take him to Park City to discuss diminishing snowpack and challenges to the ski industry.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat and co-chairman of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, has toured a dozen states and is especially targeting those dominated by Republican senators who may be skeptics of climate change or doubt it altogether.

Whitehouse, who has unveiled legislation to put a fee on carbon, said Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, R-Utah, aren’t going to be as worried about rising sea levels in Rhode Island — where people are increasingly concerned — but they may listen if he can talk to them about economic impacts in their home states.

“Time is not our friend in this battle,” he said. “This has been instructive for me.”

At the preserve owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, Whitehouse was briefed on the importance of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem on a variety of fronts — from its role in supporting a $97 million a year waterfowl hunting industry, to its $147 million brine shrimp harvest.

Chris Brown, director of stewardship programs for the conservancy, told Whitehouse that the water use to lap at the edges of the visitor center and the cat tails that should still be green have turned brown.

“We are drying out,” Brown said.

While states on the East Coast struggle with extreme weather events such as flooding, Utah is dealing with potential issues of water scarcity as its population is slated to nearly double in the next 35 years.

“We may be getting more water, but it is falling as rain,” said Robert Gillies, state climatologist and head of the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University. That type of precipitation doesn’t work to fill the state’s reservoirs, he said.

As the Great Salt Lake continues to shrink from reduced inflows, diminishing aquifers and persistent drought, the exposed lakebed is stirred up by the wind, creating compounding problems for air quality and dust that accelerates snowmelt.

Whitehouse will be in Utah through Wednesday, when he plans to meet with Utah Moms for Clean Air to discuss the Wasatch Front’s air quality challenges.

He said he hopes to add information and insight to his quest to develop sound public policy in the arena of climate change.

“I am trying to educate myself to be a better advocate,” Whitehouse said.


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