Photo from Mary Anne Karren

This article was originally published on Mary Anne’s website, and has been republished with her permission.

When I first realized that sewage was being dumped into Great Salt Lake, it all started making sense. How sometimes I’d be out there in the soup with the birds, and suddenly I would be overcome by the smell of urine. “Holy crap,” I thought. “This water doesn’t smell like urine, it is urine.” No joke.

It’s comforting to know that the sewage that goes into Great Salt Lake is not raw sewage. It has been treated, and the professionals don’t call it poo, they call it “final effluent.“ I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not treated so much that the urine smell totally disappears, but everyone agrees that it’s treated enough to be safe. At least that’s true once it gets diluted into a large body of super salty water (I won’t get into this little caveat since I have covered it in a previous blog post).

Once I started thinking about the flow of water in the Great Basin, i realized that of course our treated sewage is dumped into Great Salt Lake. Where else would it go? There’s no river out of here. There’s no route to the ocean. Great Salt Lake is a “terminal basin lake” which means that it’s the end of the line for our water. Unless the water escapes the basin by evaporation or is pumped out, it can only go to the great holding pond at the bottom of the basin- which is Great Salt Lake. Water in the Great Basin may sit the winter out in the form of snow, run for a season in a river, or wait for a year in a reservoir before flowing through some pipes and into your home, but at the tail end of every stream in the Great Basin, including your sewer pipe, is Great Salt Lake.

Water used inside your home – washing clothes, washing dishes, flushing the toilet, taking showers – this water becomes sewage, which gets treated and ends up in Great Salt Lake. Indoor water uses are considered “non-consumptive”, because most of the water (upwards of 95%) that goes down the drain is captured and returned to the watershed (return flows). Return flows are a big piece of the water currently reaching Great Salt Lake, and are absolutely essential for the survival of the lake. Same goes for precipitation falling on the city and flowing into gutters and storm drains. Storm runoff is an important source of water for Great Salt Lake. After realizing this, I became tortured by contradictory thoughts every day all summer long when my neighbor’s sprinklers came on at and started watering the gutters. I still can’t even process the dilemma of rain barrels.

Now let’s talk about “consumptive” water use. Consumptive use removes water from the system altogether, and in the Great Basin that mostly means evaporation. Using water outdoors is almost entirely consumptive. Water flowing out of your sprinklers and onto your landscaping evaporates and will not find its way back into the watershed or Great Salt Lake. Plants are excellent water consumers – they evaporate water by design. Outdoor landscaping accounts for almost all of our residential consumptive water use in the Great Basin.

So, if you want to conserve water to help Great Salt Lake, reduce your outdoor water use. Indoor use (shower, laundry, toilet, dishes) gets a pass.

Now when I say reduce your outdoor water use, I don’t mean you should go out and kill all your landscaping or cover your yard with rocks. Vegetation is important in cities and suburbs for a lot of reasons, including heat control and wildlife habitat. But that’s a subject for another post, and today I’m making a point about flushing your toilets. Just remember that if water leaves your home through a drain, it eventually goes to Great Salt Lake where it belongs. If you wash dishes and send your dirty dish water down the drain, you’ve just moved water from a reservoir into Great Salt Lake. If you stop flushing your toilet unless it’s a number two, I applaud your steel… but understand that you’re sending less water to Great Salt Lake. Especially now, when the Great Salt Lake ecosystem is on the verge of collapse, Great Salt Lake needs our used water as a matter of life and death.

If “Flush More For Great Salt Lake!” seems counterintuitive to you, understand that our situation here in the Great Basin is different from other cities and other lakes. Take the familiar example of Los Angeles, which has tragically sucked two of California’s terminal basin lakes (Owens lake and Mono Lake) nearly dry. Los Angeles diverts water before it ever gets to those lakes, then pipes it out of the watershed to L.A. and eventually releases it downstream – into the ocean. Every drop of Owen’s lake water used in Los Angeles households is consumptive, because none of that water makes it back into the Owen’s Lake watershed. Therefore, in the case of L.A. (and many other cities), aggressive household water conservation and municipal water recycling is absolutely essential to preserve and restore the rivers and lakes upstream. In our case, Great Salt Lake is the downstream recipient of our used city water, and that makes indoor water use very low on the list of our sins against it.

Perhaps someday, taking shorter showers and flushing less may actually help Great Salt Lake. We could pass laws requiring that Great Salt Lake get its fair share. We could design municipal water recycling programs that don’t reduce return flows (and actually improve Great Salt Lake water quality to boot). But as the system currently works, using less water inside your home means less water for Great Salt Lake. Right now, as an ordinary citizen of the Great Basin, your taps and toilets are the only levers you have to move water from reservoirs into Great Salt Lake.

So for now… go ahead and flush.

Mary Anne Karren is a Salt Lake City- based wildlife photographer exploring how to use her tools as an artist and photographer to benefit birds and their habitat. Mary Anne’s current project focuses on the rapidly disappearing Great Salt Lake, largest saline lake in the hemisphere and lynchpin habitat for ten million migrating birds. Her work juxtaposes the vibrant bird life of Great Salt Lake with its otherworldly landscapes.