Illusion of Abundance

What Does It Take to Leave Enough Water for Great Salt Lake?

Co-Creators: Amy MacDonald, Sofia Gorder, Rob Wilson and Joel Long

Begun in 2022, Illusion of Abundance (IOA) is a grassroots racial, social and climate justice project. It exposes a climate and culture in crisis due to the declining Great Salt Lake. IOA illuminates the historical erasure of the natural world and indigenous knowledge systems that hold innovative and necessary concepts available for saving our climate holistically. Through dance, prose, intertribal interviews and song, research, and stunning cinematography of Utah’s waterways and the nature it supports, IOA immerses you in the possibility of positive change and building paradigms to include underrepresented voices in stewardship, artistry and decision making around natural resources, land use, and climate.

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Evaporation: What Does It Take To Leave Enough Water For Great Salt Lake

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Great Salt Lake Symposium event at Antelope Island September 24, 2022

From the reading entitled “We Are Made Of Water: Losing The Great Salt Lake”, by Joel Long, performance by Jordan Danielle, and Performance Art Piece entitled “Illusion of Abundance”, Choreography by Sofia Gorder, Narrative Written by Sophia Cutubrus

As Utah’s Great Salt Lake Dries Up, Economic Crisis Looms | WSJ

When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Aldo Leopold

State Lawmaker and Rancher

Great Salt Lake: 1984 -2020

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The Illusion of Abundance

Picture her, waters of purple, pink, and blue crested in crystalline salt deposits. Her shoreline, a ring of pearls.

In the late 1800s, early 1900s, locals would have speckled her shallows, floating effortlessly in her brine. Along her beach, an architectural gem, the Saltair, affectionately described as the “West’s Coney Island” waded on vertical beams that rose above her. A railroad spanned the flats from Salt Lake City to the amusement park. Young couples took the train out towards that faultless sunset, caught and refracted across her water.

Trekking towards shoreline, I close my eyes and listen to the hushed ripples, the distant swaying reed, and somewhere in these sounds I find the murmurs of ghosts, past visitors, making their way to the “biggest dance floor in America,” lindy rhythms popping through the static of time.

If only we could reconstruct that building. If only we could feel the heat from all that dancing. If only her water reached the piles, then maybe we could still see the light from the low sun glinting off her surface, sparkling back towards the cosmos.

Would you believe me if I said Great Salt Lake beats like a heart? Coves like atriums, rivers like arteries. Nourishing her, filling her, driving her pulse.

At one extreme an overflow and the other a contraction.

Three rivers flow into her. The Bear, Jordan, and Weber. Each integral to her existence.

Take me to the river, drop me in the water. Drop me into something greater than myself. Disappear me into another body.

Great Salt Lake: a body of water.
I step inside. I spread myself out thin. The remnants of a prehistoric sea rise up underneath me, inside me, through me.

Submerged in this purple brine, I give-way to the workings of geological time. Water tumbles gently against my skin and settles salt into my hair, my toenails, and under my breast. It’s as if I could withstand this moment long enough, I could become her, too.

Today, the Bureau of Reclamation administrates all major water reserves in the American West. It’s also the largest wholesaler of water and the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the country.

The Bureau reclaims water from the wild. Harnesses it, cultivates it, puts it to use.

Let us ruminate on the reservoir. A cavity, a hard, cool wall, a line of turbines to be run through. A tool of reclamation.

But what happens when there is nothing left to reclaim because the water has become an apparition?

Imagine a petrified vein crossing the desert. The illusion of abundance always allows for some amnesia. How else could one forget that water is life’s antecedent. Without it, what would the roots search for?

Before terminating in Great Salt Lake, the Bear River and its tributaries run through sixty-one reservoirs, like sixty-one hail marys. Please, God let there be water in the desert today.

Upper Pleasantview, Hyrum, Porcupine, Wellsville, Barker, Birch Creek, Blake, C H Smith, Crane, Crompton, Dry Basin, Dry Hollow, Limestone, Little Creek.

Each impounds Bear’s water, holding it back from Great Salt Lake.

Condie, Cutler, Foster, Glendale, Johnson, Lamont, Newton, Oneida Narrows, Oxford, Twin Lakes, Weston Creek, Wendon.

Harnessing the power of each drop and subduing the rush of the river into a placid pool.

Alexander, Bear, Cook, Kearl, Lakey, Little Valley, Lower North Eden, Fourth Creek, Larson, Sheep Creek, Billy Snipe, Daniels, Mantua, Upper Deep Creek.

All the while her pulse dims.

Little Long Hill, Martin, Massae, Myers, Neponset, Painter, Question Mark, Richey, Sage Hollow, Saleratus (1-3), Shearing Corral, Sixmile, Sulphur Creek, Suttons, Thomas, Whitney, Woodruff.

I imagine there’s an aspect of suffocation that occurs when reservoirs well up. But lands cannot cry out like babies do when they are baptized. And each act still leaves me questioning if this kind of submersion could ever bring us into the depths of reclamation.

For the microbialites that ornament her shallows, her drying up must be a reverse drowning. I see colonies cracking as air feeds on any moisture in their flesh and say a prayer for each exposed mound, dried out and dead.

We’ve learned myths about her. Too salty for life, like the uninhabitable, lifeless desert where she resides. If she cannot be cultivated to support crops and if she can’t be used recreationally for profit, capitalize on her resistance, we thought.

So salt mines are constructed here, brine shrimp farms there. We capture fresh water before it touches her brine, and let contaminated run-off flow in. I see her, our life force, depleted in trade for economic growth.

And so the logic of reclamation gives way to the logic of destruction.

Yet, Great Salt Lake and her surrounding desert had always and continue to support all forms of life.

Brine shrimp famously flick through her, an entire city takes her name, and she’s the ancestral land of Goshiute, Shoshone, Ute, and Paiute people. Twenty-seven species of bacteria thrive inside her. Up to ten million birds migrate to her every year.

She gives all of this life, and yet we do nothing to replenish her.

As she disappears, the heavy metals in her lakebed are exposed. And with each gust of wind we take another breath of wasteland. In this American dream of cultivation, she has become caustic to the lungs.

The Governor calls for prayer and rain, children are kept from playing outside, the air is already thick with poison, her waters depleted by at least 22 feet.

I wonder if I left the kitchen sink running. As if the turn of a single spigot could ward off our last breath in a dust-bowl-esque Salt Lake City.

All of this change begins with the novelty of ghost towns emerging from reservoir beds, natural arches reappearing in dried up red rock canyons, and the first sight of microbialites I’ve ever had.

Isn’t it strange, to see the familiar made anew. To your wonderment and awe, I relate. How else do you respond to a world made over?

Already we have lived through the driest decade and a half in Utah’s history. With each additional year of drought, we will potentially witness the extinction of brine flies, brine shrimp, and the migratory birds that visit her every year. Her slow dying marked as her mummified lakebed creeps further West. Maybe we will live long enough to see the desolation of her namesake city.

But relocation is never a salve for the homesick. No one yearns to return to a home they cannot place.

I yearn for the bombing of dams and a glass of water.


Copyright © 2022 Sophia Cutubrus. All Rights Reserved.

We are Made of Water: Losing the Great Salt Lake

Light moves on water. Light moves beneath water. The water changes light with movement, folds light, bends it, draws skeins of shadow, filaments, stretched and trembling. Water and its edges cannot know the edge where I begin, where memory meets the present, deepens it every time I looked toward Antelope Island, every time, I see a ribbon of avocets spook, stretch their bodies with russet heads, rise from the shore and pulse chevron, one hundred birds lit white in front of gold hills over the sky in the water. This ritual bell sounds inside me. It chimes every time I go to Black Rock, Lee’s Creek, White Rock Bay, Rozel Point, Monument Point, Saltair. Now, the lake seems inevitable in me; it has always been there. Every touch with mystery is new. Every visit to the lake is a consecration I crave. How do I know the difference between who I am and what I see? The lake brings me back to the sacred place, beauty, death, time. The light wakes me, shocks me alive.

In the John Cage composition, players strike tones in Halberstadt across decades, beginning, 1992, ending, 2640—it takes years, you see. I began going to the lake in 1991. I began to crave it. Each tone struck, each visit, I absorb the lake’s beauty, stunned by contrapuntal lines, brine flying casings, gilding the shore lip, stunned by the scarf of brine flies clothing the lake’s circumference, a linen of humming creatures, each shining, each a copper scale, stunned also by a parade of gulls, blinding white, opening beaks and gullets, inhaling that scarf of flies that never diminishes, not yet. I step in. I submerge myself in water to know I am in place, my skin coated with salt that dries in a white, crystal crust, shape of me, tone upon tone, slow music of place beneath my skin. The last tone, I will never hear. When I shower later, salt scrubs my skin smooth. The composition plays on.

Today, early September, the lake hits its record low; this statement will become redundant; nearly every day from now until late November will be a record low; snow already melted, little rain in the forecast, and temperatures over the next few weeks averaging around 98 with a few days around 103, 105. Where will I find water next time I drive to the island? Where will birds find water?

My daughters are small then, the smallest Russian dolls nested within their adult lives. The girls float in waters of Bridger Bay, north end of Antelope Island, a sort of sandy beach, like something in California, here, Utah, pretending to have a beach. Hannah and Sarah float, their Old Navy dresses billowing around them like strange blooms with too many colors for this desert climate, their delicate legs, fabric undulating around them. The girls do not struggle against water. They are oil, pulsing bodies rising to the shimmering surface—their mouths never taste salt. My daughters turn slowly in current that carries one hundred thousand brine shrimp, vibrating parentheses, each furred, two eyes in terminal tufts. I lift palms full of the shrimp, a little saltwater draining from my pink, shining palm. The brine shrimp spin in my hand, threads of sensation, life, tickling my lifeline palm readers know. The water and its color curl around my girls in powder blue lines, oat lines, teak, blurred lines leading me to daydream, to my fluid heart, tawny hillside lines, cloud lines, blue-midday-sky lines dotted with five-white-gull lines, the girls lifted above it all.

Those first summers I drive to Antelope Island, passing the payment booth, water opens both sides of the causeway. The transition is special. I drive in the sky, wisps of cloud beneath my wheels, behind me in mirrors, driving a narrow dash of roadway a thousand miles in the air. The departure from the suburbs, Layton, Syracuse, the everyday grid of their streets and strip malls, is immediate. I feel what Emily Dickinson calls transport, gliding toward the island surrounded by salt waters, residue of the shaman’s work.

To desecrate means to treat a sacred place with violent disrespect, to violate the sacred. To allow this lake to die, to blow out its windows, turn this sacred image to dust, seems a desecration. We hollow the heart of mystery with a dull knife, sawdust at our feet, a slow catastrophe. The dying of the lake is less sudden than a bombing, more difficult to pin responsibility, yet the desecration is shocking and permanent. I speak so little of sin, but it must be that destroying a beautiful thing, so vast, so sublime, so lifegiving to myriad beings as the Great Salt Lake, yes, it must be sin.

The water no longer touches the causeway. What once was a road through sky on water, now travels dry flats, construction that moves stones where spiders lived, strange places for salt grass, pickleweed, and greens, avocets concentrated in limited pools. At the viaduct, no water runs through. V shaped pools of the lake run in ribbons toward Farmington one side, toward Fremont Island the other. I watch a video last winter of a young man riding his bicycle to Fremont Island from here. It is meant to be charming, this new accessibility to an island that before could only be gained by boat, but this intimacy is earned only by evaporation with little to replenish what turns vapor. The bones of the lake are exposed, microbialites in white bars drying above water. It should be grotesque, the fractured tibia thrust through skin.
Every element of the sacred resides in the Great Salt Lake and the gardens at its hem. If we let the lake die, the sacred will diminish inside us. When I first went to Spiral Jetty, the Jetty was covered in water, just the black basalt tops peaking above, muffled in trembling, salty foam, wind froth. Today, it takes an hour to get to water from the far edge of Spiral Jetty, through mud flats and mushroom domes of white salt freckled with dead grasshoppers and moths, their intricate legs. The water is retreating. I fill an hour walking to water. I take off my shoes in salt crystals, and wade, bare feet distorted by pink water resting in the heart of this basin with its 10 million birds. The Great Salt Lake is alive now. What will I do to keep it living?

When I open the window on the causeway to Antelope Island, the smell of the lake fills the car. Now, to me, it is the smell of good whiskey, good scotch, single malt, Laphroaig, that intoxication from the past, smoke the back of my mouth, brine and loam. My tongue reaches its roots to the ground where it finds musty crocuses blooming from frozen mud. Day clouds slowly explode above water, within it, the inverted flight of a hundred phalaropes, the birds skimming air above, light on every ripple, color on every scale, a sky and body of water in circuit with pink and blue, that complicated breath. This smell that some find repulsive is a bell that rings my senses, alert to movement of water, to avocets and stilts wading, doubled by fluid mirror, their spindly legs passing through dawn beneath them. The scent is soft earth, spongy rich, brine fly larvae, pupae. I feel the aroma in my skin, in my muscles, in the tough muscle heart, leathery and damp. The scent permeates me. I breathe it in. I breathe light on water, light underwater. It is inside me. It is my home.

Copyright © 2022 Joel Long. All Rights Reserved.

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Brolly Arts

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Brolly Arts is dedicated to creating meaningful art and vibrant communities through artistic and civic collaboration and experimentation. BA develops artistic, civic, & corporate partnerships to increase awareness and change around major issues of the day with local relevance, increase access to innovative arts programming, and support for independent artists. BA works with communities to identify and build positive change around pressing racial, social and climate issues through: Courageous Art Making; Grassroots Civic Engagement, and; Public Events that transform community stories and research into positive change. Through these efforts BA has served over 750 artists & formed strategic partnerships.

Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster University
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Connecting people to Great Salt Lake through research and education 
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The mission of FRIENDS is to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake ecosystem and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the Lake through education, research, advocacy and the arts. The long-term vision of FRIENDS is to achieve comprehensive watershed-based restoration and protection for the Great Salt Lake ecosystem 

Save Our Great Salt Lake

Save Our Great Salt Lake is a group of organizers, artists, business owners, and concerned citizens working together to prevent ecosystem collapse at the Great Salt Lake. We proclaim Great Salt Lake’s inherent right to exist and flourish. We recognize and uphold the sentience, intelligence, and sovereignty of this essential water body. We hold Utah lawmakers accountable for taking measures to match the terrible urgency of this crisis. We demand changes that will reverse the active collapse of our irreplaceable ecosystem. By holding space for collective learning and engagement, we work to protect and restore the lake. 

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Great Salt Lake is collapsing. Failing to reverse its decline will harm our health and home for generations. Grow the Flow is a citizen-led movement that exists for just one reason: replenish the lake we love and depend on. 

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Heather May, Director


The Great Salt Lake Collaborative is a group of 19 news, education and civic organizations that have come together to better inform and engage the public about the crisis facing the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. We will answer the question: During a time of drought, climate change and major population growth, how can Utah better support a critical body of water? We will do this through rigorous journalism, innovative storytelling and unique community outreach that focuses on how agencies and people are responding to the challenges facing the lake.