It turns out that today’s debate over whether global warming is a man-made or cyclic phenomenon isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s part of an ongoing struggle to understand mankind’s effect on the planet and nature’s ability to recover.
One of the first environmental discussions Tooele citizens became involved in began in the early 1900s, when some of the larger newspapers in Salt Lake began reporting that the Tooele Valley’s inhabitants were overexploiting the Great Salt Lake and that the lake’s levels were beginning to decrease. However, one of the writers for the Tooele Transcript felt differently.
“We do not see why the present level should be called ‘low,’” the Transcript reported in 1901, “from the fact that it is really a shade higher than it was when the pioneers first saw its beautiful sparkling waters. That the lake has been a touch higher than it is today, every person old enough knows that fact, but the rise in the waters was the result of natural and climatic causes — causes that may come to pass a dozen times before half of the present century may have passed away.”
However, the Transcript did agree that there was a chance that human activity might be affecting the lake. Machinery used in a salt mining operation did in fact pump water out of the lake, the article agreed, and little of that water was returned to the lake after the salt had been extracted.
“Then there are the thousands of tons of salt that are extracted annually from the waters of the lake,” the author wrote. “That may be a slow [process], but it certainly is a sure way of lowering the water of our inland sea.”
To slow the operation, the Transcript recommended the state impose a tax on any who would extract salt from the lake. The revenue from that tax could then be used to repair the damage to the natural environment.
Nonetheless, the Transcript assured readers that it was confident that “there is water enough under the lake, if brought to the surface, to keep the present level at a normal status even with the existing climatic conditions.”
The Transcript, as well as the other metro papers of the day, might have been on to something. Historical data indicates that lake levels did in fact drop sharply between 1895 and 1900, but the lake recovered by itself, and by 1905 the lake had increased in elevation dramatically. This cycle of high and low lake levels has continued every couple of decades, with the lowest known lake levels occurring around 1965, and the highest during the late 1980s.