'Not the type of record we like to break': Great Salt Lake hits all-time low, again

The Great Salt Lake as seen on Tuesday, Feb. 15. The lake reached a new low, officials confirmed Tuesday.

The Great Salt Lake as seen on Tuesday, Feb. 15. The lake reached a new low, officials confirmed Tuesday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

Editor's note: 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.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Great Salt Lake has fallen to a new low yet again.

The lake's average daily surface water elevation dropped to 4,190.1 feet at the Saltair station, U.S. Geological Survey officials said Tuesday. This is 0.1 feet below the record set in October of last year. Lake level data dates back to 1847.

"This is not the type of record we like to break," said Joel Ferry, the new executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, in a statement.

Department officials projected that the record would be broken again this year based on low snowpack projections and other variables, including human water consumption that diverts water from entering the lake.

Experts believe that lake levels will only continue to decline in the coming months. Ryan Rowland, the USGS Utah Water Science Center's data chief, explained that levels will continue to fall until the "amount of incoming water to the lake equals or exceeds evaporative losses," which likely won't happen until fall or early winter.

This happened last year after lake levels hit an all-time low in July last year, which snapped the previous record set in 1963. Water levels continued to fall until a series of storms in October helped bring up water levels a bit.

While it's an unwanted record, Rowland said the 175 years of lake-level data provides "invaluable" input in helping resource managers and researchers try to find solutions that help the lake's health.

Low lake levels pose a risk to humans and wildlife alike. The lakebed contains hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, mercury and selenium as a result of industrial activities near the lake; a recent study led by Utah State University researchers found that these metals are not just in the lakebed but are moving through the lake ecosystem.

Strong winds from a storm last month carried some of this dust into communities by the lake. Zachary Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, warned Tuesday that the drying lake increases the likelihood of toxic dust storms.

Meanwhile, lower levels also threaten the 10 million migratory birds who use the lake annually. Frankel adds that it could also result in a financial impact, especially for the businesses that use the lake for brine shrimp harvest or just for recreation.

Utah's drought and the lake's record low levels prompted the Utah Legislature to make a few changes to reduce water use this year. One bill directed $40 million toward projects that improve the Great Lake Watershed. State officials announced last month that the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy will oversee the program.

But water advocacy groups like Utah Rivers Council say that more needs to be done to help the drying lake before it's too late. Frankel has been a large critic of the planned Bear River Development Project, which aims to provide Utah's communities with more Bear River water in the future as the state's population grows but would divert more water from heading into the Great Salt Lake, also.

"The Utah statehouse has given us lip service and dog-and-pony shows about the Lake," he said, in a statement Tuesday. "We need to put aside 2 million acre-feet of water into the Lake, anything less than that short changes our future."

Ferry, who was one of the many co-sponsors of the bill directing $40 million toward the lake while he was in the Utah Legislature, agrees that "urgent action" is needed to help preserve the lake.

"It's clear the lake is in trouble," he said. "We recognize more action and resources are needed and we are actively working with the many stakeholders who value the lake."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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