Great Salt Lake is up, but it still isn’t healthy — and likely won’t be for a while

While the lake is above the highest elevation level at any point last year, it’s still below the minimum healthy level of 4,198 feet by at least a yard and some change.

(Megan Banta | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water levels are up in Bear River Bay during a flyover of the Great Salt Lake with EcoFlight on Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

Utah officials expect The Great Salt Lake to rise by another 12 to 18 inches or so amid spring runoff.

“This is both a hope and a guess that we may reach 4,195.5, maybe up to 4,196,” said Deputy Great Salt Lake Commissioner Tim Davis.

While that would continue what Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed described as a “great” and “remarkable” recovery for water levels, it still wouldn’t make the lake healthy.

But it would greatly improve the lake’s ecology.

On Tuesday, the lake level was 4,194.7 feet above sea level in the south arm as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey at Saltair Boat Harbor and 4,191.4 feet in the north arm as measured just northwest of Promontory Point.

While that’s above the highest elevation level at any point last year, it’s still below the minimum “healthy level” of 4,198 feet by at least a yard and some change. The Utah Department of Natural Resources set the healthy range of the lake between 4,198 and 4,205 feet above sea level, and Steed confirmed the state is still using that level.

There are challenges to reaching 4,198 feet, Steed said, because the lake spreads as it rises, leading to more evaporation and slower recovery.

“It’s not a one-to-one where you have the inputs and ... it goes up at the same level,” he said. “Unless we have a continued series of really great winters, we’re going to be in this for a long haul.”

The state has projected it will take more than 400,000 acre-feet of additional water per year to get the lake to healthy levels, Steed said. That’s the equivalent of about 130.3 billion gallons or 266,000 Olympic swimming pools.

The lake average hasn’t been at a healthy level in over two decades and hit its all-time low in fall 2022.

But, in some good news, it’s close to 4,195 feet — a level Steed said is categorized as “some adverse impacts” to the animals and plants that depend on the lake.

“We are in a much, much healthier space ecologically than we had been in the runoff up to this time,” Steed said.

Salinity levels are also good in the south arm, he said, making for a large brine shrimp harvest and expectations of a large brine fly population for migratory birds.

The lake is similar to where it was in 2019, he said. That’s good, but not great.

South arm levels have been artificially high because the state sealed a railroad causeway to help keep the lake viable.

(Megan Banta | The Salt Lake Tribune) The railroad causeway and berm used to regulate flow to the north arm of the Great Salt Lake are visible during a flyover of the lake with EcoFlight on Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

Officials intend to keep that breach open this year, Steed said, to help the north arm recover.

They will approach whether to raise the breach year by year, he said, with some hard cutoffs like raising it if the south arm gets down to 4,190 feet.

Another piece of good news: Reservoirs along tributaries that feed the Great Salt Lake are “remarkably healthy,” Steed said. Between those water levels and the snowpack, he said, officials expect more releases of water into the lake.

Utah is “learning as we go” about how much water needs sent into the lake, Steed said.

Officials are having lots of conversations now with farmers, agriculture groups and municipal water districts to talk about water conversation, delivery and retention, Davis said.

“It’s going to take everyone working together to save water, get it to the lake and make sure it stays there,” he said.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.