The Great Salt Lake’s water level sits at an all-time low, data shows. But officials say a fast start to Utah’s water year could be cause for short-term optimism for the state’s famous natural wonder.
On Friday, the average daily level of the lake was at 4190.6 feet above sea level, according to U.S. Geological Survey data collected from the Saltair boat harbor, located on the lake’s southern edge.
That is lower than the average daily level of 4191.3 feet that USGS reported on July 23, which at the time broke a record low set in 1963, based on records maintained by the USGS.
The lake’s historically low water level has 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 docks.
The ongoing drought stands to cause lasting damage to microbialites, the Utah Geological Survey reported July 15. The submerged rock mounds 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.
Dust from its increasingly exposed lakebed, which can carry heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury, also could add to Utah’s pollution problem or land on the snowpack in the mountains, making it melt faster, experts say.
At the time of the summer record, officials said that seasonally, the lake starts bouncing back in September or October, when rain storms move into northern Utah and agricultural water use declines.
The National Weather Service in October reported that Salt Lake City received 3.49 inches of precipitation, more than two inches than the typical October average of 1.26 inches. Last month′s totals were the sixth highest in the city’s recorded history for the month of October.
The Utah Division of Water Resources also announced that, as of Oct. 13, early snowstorms had provided the state with 11,000% of its typical snowpack equivalent, signaling that the state’s new water year, which began on Oct. 1, was “off to a great start”.
The recent precipitation has helped a bit. USGS Water Science Center Data Chief Ryan Rowland noted that, after bottoming out at 4190.2 feet above sea level on Oct. 18, the lake has risen recently.
But Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, cautioned that the wetter weather wasn’t a long-term solution.
“We’ve had an amazing amount of precipitation over the last couple of weeks, but it is nowhere near the levels that it’s going to take to bring the lake to a condition that’s not frightening,” Vernon said.
Why moist soil is good for the lake
Instead, a greater water level increase may come in spring, when mountain snowpack melts into spring runoff, feeding into the three rivers — Jordan, Weber and Bear — that help fill the lake.
That was expected earlier this year too. But parched soils soaked up much of the snowpack before it could reach the rivers, causing the lake to receive only six inches of water despite a “decent amount of snow,” Vernon said. The lake usually rises by about two feet each year.
“We have to not only climb out of that 1.5 foot deficit that we got ourselves into this spring, but surpass that and keep going,” Vernon said. “We’re hoping for a three to four foot rise.”
This spring may be different, Rowland said. That’s because October’s heavy precipitation did drench the soil in Utah’s drainage basins, elevating its moisture levels.
“If we can keep soil moisture levels elevated as we get into the really cold season, then this spring, as snow melts, that water is going to make its way into our streams and rivers and then convey down into the system as opposed to just infiltrating those super dry soils,” Rowland said.
The amount of resulting spring runoff is going to be the “biggest factor in getting a bounce in lake elevation,” Rowland said.
Vernon said that the state will need several winters with exceptional snowpack “to bring us back to conditions where people are most comfortable with the Great Salt Lake levels.”