May 09, 2019

Still Great? Decreasing water levels threaten Great Salt Lake’s future.

By Greg Wilcox

Last summer, I joined a team of yachters out on the Great Salt Lake competing in a weekly race. I landed on a vessel owned by Tim Adams, an avid yachter who has been sailing for more than a quarter century.

"If you can sail here, you can sail anywhere," he said. "I've sailed in the Mediterranean near Turkey, the South Pacific, up and down the West Coast to Mexico. This is the most difficult and challenging place to sail. It's an amazing place."

The team of yachters certainly had their work cut out for them that evening. In what to me was nothing short of utterly confusing, the six of them scurried around the vessel, pulling on ropes, unfurling sails, shouting about aft, backstay, tack, and, in general, speaking a parlance of which I know nothing about and am not remotely qualified to convey.

I'm told the boat we are on usually takes first place; this evening, it came in last. Some things went wrong that, as mentioned, I don't know enough about to explain. I presume (but not fully sure) it had nothing to do with me.

It doesn't matter; drinks and barbeque were on hand, as well as good-natured camaraderie. The Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, established on May 10, 1877, meets every week to enjoy sailing on the lake's salty waters. Good spirits prevail as club members joke and jibe each other over this attempt to best each other in the weekly race. When asked about the lake, the sailors speak admirably.

"It's stunningly beautiful; the water is typically glassy smooth," Adams says. "It has its own magical quality."

Their weekly nautical avocation has been hampered, however, by the well-documented and highly visible fact that the Great Salt Lake is disappearing. Among other factors, this has impacted recreational sailing, primarily due to the difficulties of entering and exiting the Great Salt Lake Marina.

"Ten years ago, we had some 45 boats down there, now there's 20, so now we're at less than half capacity, and certainly it's dwindling with the decreased water levels," Adams says, referring to the number of boats venturing out to race. He adds that he and his wife have downsized their own vessel in order to handle the lower water level.

Janet Robins, commodore of the yacht club, says meeting the challenges has been a struggle. After a lengthy battle, the Legislature approved funds for a dredging (the removal of excess sand, silt, mud, etc.) of the marina two years ago. But the continued problematic lake level, in addition to skepticism over the efficacy of the dredging effort, mean current conditions have still been a far cry from smooth sailing for local yachters.

"Because the marina has not been maintained properly, combined with low water conditions, our sailing activities have been severely limited," Robins says.

In November 2016, the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest level in recorded history. Although the lake levels fluctuate over the years and we have been in a years-long drought (interrupted by this year's above-average precipitation), a study conducted by researchers at Utah State University that same year, showed that water diversions of rivers that feed the Great Salt Lake over the last 170 years are primarily responsible for diminished lake levels of 11 feet, or 48% reductions in volume.

Some blame climate change and drought conditions. While it's true in the long-term that climate change will have an effect on the Great Salt Lake, Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a USU professor who helped author the study, writes via email, "While we're waiting for climate change impacts, the lake may very well be dried up by water diversions and development."

Seeing the direct effects of these upstream diversions, Robins shared this sentiment and has a bleak view of the future for the yacht club.

"With proposed diversions, we will probably not be able to enjoy [the lake] for more than another year or so," she says.

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