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AP takes immersive look as drought puts ‘flatlining’ Great Salt Lake at historic risk

Pink water washes over a salt crust along the receding edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, May 4, 2021. The lake has been shrinking for years, and its levels are expected to hit a 170-year low in 2021 as drought grips the American West. (AP Photo / Rick Bowmer)

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As the western U.S. finds itself in the grips of one of the worst droughts in recent history, the AP West region staff has delved into every aspect of the drought’s impact across the region. In one of the hardest-hit areas, Salt Lake City-based AP photographer Rick Bowmer, reporter Lindsay Whitehurst and interim news editor Brady McCombs documented that Utah’s Great Salt Lake is headed toward historically low water levels.

Reporting ahead of other news outlets, the AP delivered an in-depth, visually rich all-formats package that showed readers how the dying lake, nearly the size of Delaware, is negatively impacting people and wildlife and is a harbinger of worrisome drought-related consequences ahead.

The team reported how decades of drought and water diversion in the booming region is affecting the nesting spot of pelicans forcing sailors to hoist their boats from shallow waters and exposing dry lakebed that could send arsenic-laced dust into the air that millions breathe.

Bowmer spent countless hours at a lake that covers an area nearly the size of Delaware to produce stunning and varied images. He contributed key shots to McCombs’ video by taking time-lapse, drone and GoPro footage. Whitehurst interviewed longtime sources and tapped into her deep knowledge of the lake to write a story that explained how the lake will hit a 170-year historic low this summer and what that means for animals and people. One source told the AP: “A lot us have been talking about the lake as flatlining.”

New York Top Stories photo editor Alyssa Goodman created an immersive webpage that showcased the spectacular visuals and established a perfect landing spot for readers to spend time with the story. Seattle-based video producer Manual Valdes delivered the final edit of the video.

The result was a compelling package that had the highest engagement of all AP stories on July 6 and fourth-most for that week. It received more than 109,000 pageviews and was used by almost 200 member websites. Axios’ highlighted the story at the top of its July 7 newsletter and Kaiser Health News touted it in a July 9 newsletter. The ABC affiliate in Utah had Whitehurst on to talk about the story and used photos and video in a special segment.

For distinctive work that expands AP’s ongoing coverage of climate and drought in the West,the team of Bowmer, Whitehurst and McCombs wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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