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Great Salt Lake level drastically dropping


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SALT LAKE CITY — As the harbormaster of the Great Salt Lake Marina looks over the many empty slips on the docks, he's struck by the drastic drop in the lake level since he moved to the marina 17 years ago.

"We are in trouble," said Dave Shearer, who regrets the loss of friends who have moved their boats out of the marina over the last decade, ahead of the receding water level.

Thirty years ago, the Great Salt Lake threatened to wash over I-80 and swamp communities near its shoreline. Today, the water level is approaching its historic low, set more than 50 years ago, and that creates problems for the environment and recreation.

"When I moved out here in 1998, this marina was almost completely full of boats," said Shearer.

The marina reached its capacity of 300 boats around 2000, said Shearer. But that's when the drought started, and water levels began to drop. By 2005, Shearer said, many owners of the big boats had taken them out of the marina because it was too shallow.

"We stayed steady, about 84 percent capacity, until this last year, when it went down to about 50 percent capacity because the lake is just so low now," he said.

"I'm hitting silt right there," said the harbormaster, poking a stick into the water next to the dock. The water is only two feet deep in the slip. Among the 150 boats left in the marina, one-third are stuck in the silt.

Photo: KSL TV
Photo: KSL TV

The Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is asking the Legislature for $1.5 million to dredge the Great Salt Lake Marina, Antelope Island Marina and also marinas on Utah Lake. But division spokesman Jason Curry said that funding would not complete the job.

Today, the lake is 18 feet below its level from 15 years ago. The lake elevation is 4,193.9 feet, only two feet above its record low, set in 1963. The lake hit its record high of 4,212 feet in 1985. But, since that time, the surface area of the lake has receded from 1,500 square miles to 900 square miles.

That causes serious problems for the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, too.

Jaimi Butler, the Great Salt Lake Institute coordinator at Westminster College, is a biologist who said she has been getting to know the lake for 16 years.

"Everything that ends up there stays there, except for water, because water evaporates," she said of the terminal basin.

Lake levels are affected by evaporation and precipitation, she pointed out. Evaporation has outpaced precipitation in recent years. So the lake level continues to drop.

"Over time, we have seen the elevation of the Great Salt Lake go up and down," she said. Four years ago, the lake rose 5 feet in one year because of deep snowpack and bountiful runoff.

Butler recalled the high levels in the mid-1980s.

Photo: KSL TV
Photo: KSL TV

"When I could stand on I-80 and plunk rocks into the water," she said. "I think people really thought the Great Salt Lake was going to swallow up our whole valley."

As the water level drops, the salinity of the lake intensifies. Butler said that affects everything from the microbes living in the water and the mud to the birds feeding on the lake.

"Changing the salt content can change the entire food chain," the biologist said.

Plants, bugs and brine shrimp can still survive, and will thrive again in rising water, she said.

"I wouldn't say at this point that they are threatened," Butler said of the brine shrimp. "But there's definitely a point at which it will stress them out and they won't reproduce enough."

The shrinking lake surface also impacts lake-effect snowfall, which is critical for lake level recovery.

"Less lake: less lake effect," said Butler.

This doesn't bode well for the remaining boats in the marina.

"A lot of these boats will look for the opportunity to get out of here while the water is still high," said the harbormaster.

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Jed Boal

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