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Great Salt Lake at near-record low level

First Published      Last Updated Feb 20 2015 09:38 pm

Scientists say everything from industry to wildlife to air quality is at risk as the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere recedes.

There's a new normal at the Great Salt Lake.

Hundreds of square miles of lakebed are exposed. Boat marinas are nearly landlocked. Islands have become peninsulas connected to the mainland. Salinity is rising in the south arm — endangering biodiversity and the brine shrimp and minerals industries. Water-sucking plants are growing on the shore. And mercury and other toxic metals normally trapped deep in the lower layers of the lake are swirling closer to the surface and drying into dust on the shore.

A combination of persistent drought and profligate use of water threatens to drive the lake level to a new low — shattering a record set more than 50 years ago.

Despite the lake's ecological and economic importance to Utah, surveys indicate few residents are interested in the inland sea — even those who live near the shore in Davis County. But with a $1.3 billion lake-dependent economy, wildlife habitat and clean water and air at stake, scientists warn Utahns cannot resort to conventional wisdom — and stories of the 1980s floods — to dismiss the signs of a lake in crisis.

An environmental catastrophe is not imminent for the Great Salt Lake. But if it is to be preserved as a functioning ecosystem, experts say, Utahns could face tough choices in coming years, particularly about their water use.

Leland Myers, who manages the Central Davis Sewer District, puts it this way: "I could have more habitat for birds, protection from dust storms and lake industries — or I could have more green lawn."

A decade of drought and diversions

For the past decade, the Great Salt Lake's water has hovered at chronically low levels after a prolonged dry spell and Utahns' unrestrained use of water.

During the nearly 160 years that records have been kept, the lake level has fluctuated about 20 feet — from a high of 4,211.6 feet above sea level in 1986 to the record low of 4,191.3 feet set in 1963.

Today the lake level sits at 4,193.8 feet at Saltair. Many observers expect it to dip to a new historic low within the year, depending on precipitation this winter.

"With all the diversions upstream and increased usage by mineral extraction, which is new, I don't see how we would avoid a new historic low," says Craig Miller, an engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resources.

State natural resources managers are struggling to plan for a terminal lake that generates $1.3 billion in economic activity and depends on water from a 33,000-square-mile basin drained by the Bear, Provo, Jordan and Weber rivers.

Scientists acknowledge the lake's level still will fluctuate, rising in a wet year or declining in a dry year, but it's unlikely the lake ever will reach that record high again — or the expensive, $60 million pumps installed after the floods of 1983.

The largest natural water mass west of the Mississippi is getting smaller. There's just too much water being diverted from the lake these days.

Decisions about upstream water use from as far away as Idaho will determine the future.

"It's evident we don't really have a good way of managing a low-level lake for the benefit of everyone. Our laws don't allow us to do a good job of that," Miller says. "We are going to have to do our homework."

As the Great Salt Lake shrivels, its level becomes even more sensitive to inflow changes from surrounding rivers. The surface area of the lake is now less than 1,000 square miles, a shadow of the 1,700-square-mile footprint at its historic average elevation of 4,200 feet.

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Coming Monday

The state of Utah and Union Pacific Railroad might have a solution for a damaged causeway that is cutting off water circulation at the northern end of the Great Salt Lake.