GREAT SALT LAKE — Tim Loveday found out firsthand what shallow water at the receding Great Salt Lake can do to a sailboat.
He struck a reef in his boat "Goin' Rogue" about four miles off Stansbury Island on Sunday, snapping the rudder in half. A state rescue boat had to drag him back to the marina near Saltair. He figures the repair will run about $2,000, even if he does the work himself.
"This is as low as I've ever seen it," said Loveday, an avid sailor who takes to the lake two or three times a week. "Hope to never see it this low again."
The water level at the lake is as close to the historic low as it has been since 1963, said Dave Schearer, Great Salt Lake Marina harbormaster. The all-time low is 4,191 feet above sea level. The current water level is 4,193.6 feet.
"This is the worst we've seen," he said.
It's so shallow that about 20 percent of the 270 sailboats moored at the marina haven't been able to reach open water since August, rendering them as nothing more than weekend cabins for now.
The lack of depth is nothing new, Schearer said. Boats have been trapped in the harbor three times in the past decade.
"We've been in a 10-year drought," he said. "The lake has been going down and down and down."
The water is currently about 4 1/2 feet deep at the marina, and less than that when a strong south wind blows causing the water to surge north, Schearer said. During stormy weather last week, several sailboats were sitting in the mud for a few hours until the water sloshed back to the south.
Schearer blames the latest condition on a "very hideous winter" in which the snowpack reached only 59 percent of normal.
"We've been here before but it hasn't been this bad before," Schearer said. "It's making us nervous. … If we have another dismal snowpack, we'll have to rethink what we're going to do with the marina."
In a worst-case scenario, receding water could leave boats stuck in the mud. Schearer said boats would be removed and the marina closed before that could happen.
One idea being kicked around as a permanent remedy is to dredge the harbor. But Schearer said it would cost millions of dollars the Utah State Parks division doesn't have right now. It would take the Legislature stepping in or obtaining federal grants to fund such a project, he said.
For now, boaters and others with an interest in the lake can only wait on the weather. Schearer, whose own sailboat sits idle in the shallow water, said it will take snowpack of at least 150 percent of normal to raise the lake level.11 comments on this story
"Mother Nature is the one in control," he said. "Hopefully, she'll be kinder to us this year."
Friends of Great Salt Lake, an advocacy group for the protection and preservation of the lake, is also closely watching the water levels.
"It's a concern because there seems to be this trend in the way we're considering the resource," said executive director Lynn de Freitas, noting much of what happens upstream with irrigation, diversions and other uses also impact the lake.
"We can't control the weather," she said. "What we can do is be mindful of how we manage the system."