The receding Great Salt Lake, parched by a fifth year of drought, could peak months early and drop nearly 21/2 feet by the end of summer.
"It's getting very near its seasonal peak. It might go up another tenth (of a foot), but that's it," said Bill Alder, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Salt Lake office.Barring an extremely wet April, the lake could reach its high-water mark within a few weeks. In the past, the lake level usually hasn't started its decline until late May or June, Alder said.
Utah's 80-mile-long, 30-mile-wide inland sea was measured at 4,202.8 feet above sea level on Monday - only six-tenths, or about 7.2 inches higher than the 4,202.2 low registered Nov. 25, 1990.
"The lake fell 21/2 feet last summer. I expect it could fall another 2 to 21/2 feet this summer if we continue with the dry weather pattern," Alder said.
On March 30, 1987, heavy winter runoff swelled the briny lake to its historic peak of 4,211.85 feet. Subsequent flooding caused an estimated $200 million in damage to lakeshore industries, rail lines and a portion of Interstate 80.
The rising lake also covered the 7-mile causeway to Antelope Island State Park, forcing its closure in June 1983. Now, with the lake flirting with 4,200 feet, park officials are making plans to eventually reopen the island.
Assistant Park Superintendent Jim Fillpot said the price of reopening the island known for its 600-head buffalo herd, mule deer and myriad species of birds will be roughly $7 million.
"It will cost $2 million just to reopen the park, and $4 million to $5 million to repair and rebuild the causeway," he said. "We're going to make an attempt during the (April 17) special session to acquire at least some of the money."
Fillpot said projections that the lake will dip near the 4,200-foot mark by summer's end could help convince lawmakers the time has come to return the once-popular park to activity.
Plans call for building the new causeway at the 4,206-foot level or higher. The old causeway was built around the 4,200-foot mark.
"The drier it is, the better. Obviously it's going to help us get the lake level down to where our road can go in," Fillpot said.
But more than a new traffic span will be needed to reopen the park.
Fillpot said the island's parking lots need major resurfacing work, while the park's restrooms and sewage facilities require extensive refurbishing and repair.
If park officials succeed in freeing legislators' purses and reopen the park, the state has a $60 million insurance policy - in the form of three gigantic pumps - to guard against future lake rises.
Utah Water Resources spokesman Ron Ollis said the pumps siphoned 2.2 million acre-feet of excess water from the lake between April 1987 and June 30, 1989, when they were shut down.
In all, the pumps drained 26 inches off the lake over a 27-month period, creating a 315,000-acre evaporation pond in the western desert.
Prior to the construction of the pumping station and a companion drainage canal, the lake, a remnant of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, didn't have a natural outlet.
If the lake again threatens, about eight weeks and $1.5 million would be needed to bring the mothballed pumps back on line, Ollis said. The state also would need permission from the Air Force, since further pumping could flood portions of the Utah Test and Training Range.
But for now, it appears Utah's drought - and the lake's decline, which mirrors it - will continue.
The Salt Lake International Airport weather station has measured just 5.32 inches of precipitation since the current water year began in October 1990.
"That's 65 percent of normal for this period," Alder said. "We normally should have 8.13 inches at this time.
"This is the least amount we've had in four years," he added. "It's possible (the drought) could go on another year or two."