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Water levels in Great Salt Lake approach record low

Published: Friday, Aug. 22 2014 8:40 p.m. MDT

Visitors walk around in the water Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, at the Great Salt Lake.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

GREAT SALT LAKE — Dave Shearer sees the evidence of water levels dropping in the Great Salt Lake every time a boat has to be taken out of its slip at the Great Salt Lake Marina.

Lately, it's been a common occurrence.

"This year, we're now looking at near-record lows," said Shearer, the marina's harbor master. "We're probably going to lose about 30 boats this year. … Over the course of this drought, whether it's economic reasons or water level reasons, we'll be down about 100 boats from what we were at the height of the late 1990s."

The lake is currently about 2.5 feet above its all-time recorded low in 1963 — an elevation of 4,194 feet — and the evaporation season is not over yet, according to Jim Davis, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey.

"It's possible we could lose another foot this season," Davis said. "With the right weather conditions, we might even hit that 1963 record next year. I don't think it's particularly likely, but if the trend keeps continuing in the 21st century, it's probably just a matter of a few years before we hit that record."

About 95 percent of the water that enters the lake comes from direct precipitation, with the Jordan, Weber and Bear rivers as major contributors, according to Davis.

Dry conditions in recent years have caused water levels in reservoirs upriver from the lake, as well as water tables underground, to drop. While the Wasatch mountains had 124 percent snowpack last winter and summer rain showers have been plentiful, most of that moisture was diverted to filling reservoirs and groundwater reserves before reaching the Great Salt Lake, according to Davis.

"There's a lag time there. It's got to kind of fill up the bank account before it starts lending itself to the lake," he said.

But every bit of moisture helps, Shearer said.

"The fact that we've gotten very heavy rainfall over the last month-and-a-half has mitigated some of the damage, along with the cooler temperatures," he said. "It's slowed down evaporation."

Human impacts

Andrew Rupke, an industrial minerals specialist with the Utah Geological Survey, says receding shorelines aren't always a bad thing, especially for companies that use evaporation in harvesting minerals from the lake.

"Ultimately, as the lake recedes, it will concentrate the minerals. That's a good thing," Rupke said. "Basically, they'll need less water to get the same amount of product."

But overall, the implications of drastic reductions in water levels don't bode well for those who depend on the lake's resources, according to Justin Dolling, northern regional supervisor for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

"Obviously, if the lake were to go dry, that would be a significant impact," Dolling said. "Not only to wildlife, but to the industries that operate on the lake — the industries that mine salt and different elements used in fertilizers, and of course, the brine shrimp industry."

While the Great Salt Lake Marina operates comfortably on a slim budget, more of the larger boats are having to be extricated from the shallow waters before their hulls reach the ground, Shearer said.

"The deeper draft boats are stuck in here and are basically cabins on the water at this point," he said. "But it's not like recreation has stopped here at Great Salt Lake. A lot of the sailboats can still get out."

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