E360 Film Contest Winner

The Great Salt Lake and Its Web of Life Face an Uncertain Future

“Vanishing Oasis” — First-Place Winner of the Yale Environment 360 Film Contest — documents how massive withdrawals from rivers that feed the Great Salt Lake are threatening the survival of millions of migratory birds and creating bare lake beds that generate plumes of toxic dust.

2023 Yale Environment 360 Film Contest

Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, stretching some 950 square miles, with its extensive wetlands providing refuge for more than 10 million migratory birds. But upstream water withdrawals for agriculture are drastically lowering the lake level and raising its salt content, and another major diversion project is planned. Scientists fear the lake may soon become too salty for the brine-fly larvae and adults on which many of the bird species depend.

“We have such a huge responsibility to ensure the lake’s survival,” filmmaker Jaxon Derow says, “not just for the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem, but for all the ecosystems across the Western Hemisphere from which these birds come to feed and reproduce each year.”

To film “Vanishing Oasis” Derow visited the lake’s Antelope Island in September of 2022, when the lake was then at its lowest level on record. Drone photography revealed vast expanses of exposed lake bed, which send plumes of toxic dust toward Salt Lake City. If the lake stays low, or drops further, warns University of Utah scientist Kevin Perry, dust storms will become “more frequent and severe.”

Utah received a massive amount of snow last winter, which raised the lake more than 4 feet. But if measures to restore water flowing to the lake are not taken, Perry says, “we will be on the cusp of a dead Great Salt Lake again in a couple of years.”

About the Filmmaker: After graduating from New York Harbor School and Northeastern University’s marine biology program, Jaxon Derow enrolled at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, U.K., where he is currently completing the Directing and Producing Science and Natural History course.

About the Contest: Now in its 10th year, the Yale Environment 360 Film Contest honors the best environmental documentaries, with the aim of recognizing work that has not previously been widely seen. This year we received 582 submissions from 76 countries across six continents, with the winners selected by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert, Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon, and e360’s executive editor Roger Cohn.