The Great Salt Lake, depleted by drought, hits its lowest water level in recorded history

A lower-than-normal snowpack, and a hot, dry summer are blamed for the lake shrinking.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Few boats remain in the Great Salt Lake Marina as ongoing extreme drought conditions drop the lake levels to unprecedented levels as seen on Saturday, July 10, 2021.

The southern part of the Great Salt Lake has hit its lowest level in recorded history, as Utah’s drought and hot weather take their toll on Utah’s famous natural wonder.

The average daily level of the lake was at 4191.3 feet above sea level on Friday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which collects data from its gauge station at the Saltair boat harbor on the lake’s southern edge.

That’s lower than the old record, of 4,191.35 feet, set in October 1963. USGS keeps records of the lake going back to 1847, the year the Latter-day Saint pioneers first arrived in Utah.

Though the USGS no longer records to the hundredth of a foot — or the second number after the decimal — USGS Water Science Center data chief Ryan Rowland said the team is “confident that we’re just below that.”

Rowland said that, based on current trends and historical data, USGS anticipates the lake’s water level may drop another foot in the next few months.

Friday’s lake level, Rowland said, “is not going to be the record low [for long]. The new historic low is going to be set this autumn.”

Seasonally, the lake starts bouncing back in September or October, said Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources. That’s when rain storms move into northern Utah and agricultural water use declines, leaving more water in the three rivers — Jordan, Weber and Bear — that feed the lake.

The gauge at the harbor has dipped below the record several times before Friday, but only for brief periods, due to winds blowing the lake water around. The average daily level is “the most representative measurement,” the USGS release said.

The low lake level is attributed to the ongoing drought in Utah, and a reduced snowpack in Utah’s mountains over the winter.

When the snow melts in the spring, Vernon said, “the lake usually goes up about 2 feet every year. It could be 3 or 4 feet in an awesome year. This year, it only went up 6 inches. So it just never had a chance.”

Levels of water flow in Utah’s streams are also being hit by the drought, the USGS reported. The agency said Friday that 77 of the 122 stream gauges it monitors with records going back at least 20 years are reporting below-normal flows.

The lake’s lowering levels have been evident for weeks. Dozens of boats at the Great Salt Lake State Park marina have been lifted out of their slips and put in dry dock. The Utah Geological Survey reported July 15 that the drought could do lasting damage to microbialites, submerged rock mounds that form the basis for the lake’s ecosystem and provide the main food source for brine shrimp and brine flies — the lake’s most abundant life forms.

The Great Salt Lake contributes about $1.32 billion annually to Utah’s gross domestic product, said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Great Salt Lake. The biggest industry on the lake is mineral extraction — with companies pulling sulfate of potash, used as a fertilizer, and 14% of the world’s supply of magnesium from the evaporating water. Other industries that depend on the lake are tourism and recreation, and the harvesting of brine shrimp.

As the water level lowers, it can reveal more of the lake bed. Experts say dust from the lake bed can add to Utah’s pollution problem, and could carry heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury. The dust also can land on the snowpack in the mountains — making the snow melt faster, so the water becomes absorbed in the soil and doesn’t reach the lake.

— Tribune reporter Shelley K. Mesch contributed to this report.

Clarification, July 24, 2021, 1:15 p.m. • This story has been updated to reflect that it is the southern part of the Great Salt Lake that has hit a record low.