Great Salt Lake drains to historic low and could break record

Drought Draining Great Salt Lake To Historic Low And Soon, It Could Disappear Completely

Marinas on the Great Salt Lake are empty, and docks are sinking into the exposed mud. Thanks to an ongoing drought, the inland sea’s water level have reached a historic low. If Utah doesn’t get enough snow this year, it could break a 50-year record.

The historic low was reached in recent weeks when the levels plummeted to 4,191 feet above sea level. Authorities thought it had already reached a historic low in 2014, but this year’s level is a full foot below that measurement.

And local officials are doing whatever they can to protect the great lake, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

That includes suspending mining operations, spending millions on dredging, and cracking down on recreational motorists who have taken the exposed sea bed as an invitation to scar it with wheel tracks and scare waterfowl.

Utah has a lot at stake if its Great Salt Lake turns into a lakebed. Lower levels changes the ecosystem in and around it, and officials are keeping their eye on wildlife, recreation, mining, and air quality, the Associated Press added.

“A healthy lake means thriving industry, which benefits the state’s economy,” said local official Laura Ault. “(It) also provides more abundant resources upstream, flourishing wildlife, recreational opportunities, improved ecosystems and better air quality. We’re concerned.”

There are two arms to the Great Salt Lake. The northern is the smaller of the two, and they are separated by a Union Pacific Railroad causeway stretching 21 miles. The southern is filled by three rivers — the Bear, Weber, and Jordan — as well as discharge from wastewater treatment plants. Right now, it’s a foot higher than the North.

Back in 1984, the causeway was breached to relieve flooding. Today, nothing is moving through the breach at all, meaning that the two arms are now two distinct lakes. The North is very salty and the South a little less so.

Most of the fresh water that pours into the Great Salt Lake comes from the south arm, which means its northernmost, hypersaline arm will keep disappearing over the next few months, U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologist Cory Angeroth told the Deseret News.

The southern part is also at a historic low.

“The lake is unique in that it is so big, yet so shallow, and the bed is really flat. If you drop a foot of elevation, that exposes a lot of lake bed,” Angeroth explained. “One thing you have issues with is dust. As the lake gets smaller, it provides less surface area for evaporation.”

Back in 2011, high snowpack caused levels to rise five feet, but since then, the levels have dropped every year as Utah suffered under a drought. The state needs above average snow this winter to keep another historic low at bay. The record low was set in 1963 and the inland sea may be on track to break it.

“The north arm is cut off, sitting up there by itself and is evaporating away. (It’s) at saturation when it comes to salt, holding about as much as it can get.”

A solution may come next spring, when the railroad will build a 180-foot bridge that will break up the causeway and let water flow between the two lakes, evening out the levels. Not only will water begin to flow again, the built-up salt will shift as well.

The project will also add berms in the lake bed, which can be raised or lowered to adjust the flow of water in the future.

[Photo by Randy Judkins/Shutterstock]