Stop driving on Great Salt Lake's exposed lakebed, Utah agency says

Tire tracks from a vehicle illegally riding on exposed Great Salt Lake lakebed. Utah land managers say they are seeing a rise in illegal riding on the lakebed.

Tire tracks from a vehicle illegally riding on exposed Great Salt Lake lakebed. Utah land managers say they are seeing a rise in illegal riding on the lakebed. (Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The shrinking Great Salt Lake has generated newly exposed lakebed as it continues to drop down to record-low levels.

It has fallen to an elevation of 4,189.4 feet, as of Aug. 25, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. That's nearly a foot below the previous record low set last year. Every foot it falls has the potential to expose a few square miles of previously covered lakebed, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands experts explained earlier this year.

Yet the Great Salt Lake is still a popular draw despite its decline, and state land managers say it's resulting in an uptick in illegal driving on the exposed lakebed, which is causing "serious concerns."

"Driving on the lakebed doesn't just disturb the delicate crust, but it also has serious implications for wildlife, air quality and the sensitive (Great Salt Lake) ecosystem," said Ben Stireman, the sovereign lands program administrator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, in a statement Thursday.

It is illegal to drive on exposed lakebed or navigable rivers in Utah without written permission. Both are considered lands owned by the state, which means Utah manages laws for land areas.

The Utah Legislature tweaked the law earlier this year, clarifying that essentially every vehicle with a motor is banned by exposed lakebed or navigable rivers, including off-highway vehicles. Violation of the law is a class B misdemeanor and can leave someone liable for civil damages, according to division officials.

This also applies to other popular recreation areas like:

  • Utah Lake
  • Jordan River
  • Moab Exchange Lands
  • The Utah portion of Bear Lake
  • Portions of the Bear, Colorado and Green rivers

But the law tweak was specifically made this year with the Great Salt Lake in mind. The dust from the Great Salt Lake contains toxic heavy metals that can be blown into communities near the lake, causing severe air quality concerns. Driving on the exposed lakebed can disturb the lakebed's natural salt pan that would otherwise trap the toxic dust in the ground.

"This was designed to make sure that the increasingly exposed lakebed doesn't get broken up," said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, the bill's sponsor, in an interview back in April. "If you break that crust, then the underlying dust is more easily airborne. … It's a serious air quality issue, potentially."

State land managers add there's also a risk for vehicles to be stuck in soft mud, resulting in a "difficult" vehicle recovery that does ever more lakebed damage. That's why they are reminding visitors that they can't drive on the exposed lakebed.

The state law doesn't apply to land within the boundaries of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Tooele County, which is operated by the Bureau of Land Management. The bureau generally allows motor recreation with some seasonal closures, especially when the salt is wet in the spring.

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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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