August 02, 2021

Down the drain: As the water level hits a record low, what will become of the Great Salt Lake?

 By Sean P. Means, Salt Lake Tribune

Aug. 1, 2021, 6:00 a.m.

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Lisa Kamen calls the Great Salt Lake “a treasure” and remembers when she first visited the Utah landmark in 2008.

“We would walk out of Saltair and go for a swim,” Kamen, a psychologist from California, said recently, standing at an overlook about a mile down the shore from the Great Saltair, the onetime resort and now concert venue.

Back then, she said, the water was pretty close to Saltair. Now, in the heat of summer amid a drought, a person would have to walk about half a mile from the building to set foot in the water.

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking. On July 24 — Pioneer Day — the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the average daily elevation of the lake’s southern arm dipped below 4,191.35 feet above sea level, the record low set in 1963.

The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, meaning the water does not flow out through a river or bay. The only way the water leaves the lake is into the sky — and when the water evaporates, it leaves behind minerals, namely salt.

There’s a lot of summer left to take the lake’s level down further. “We’ve still got a lot of evaporation left,” said Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

The lake usually reaches its lowest level in September or October, Vernon said. In the fall, she said, rainstorms move into northern Utah and agricultural water use declines, leaving more water in the rivers that feed the lake.

But when fall is dry, as it was in 2020, “any precipitation that did fall went right into the soil, or melted very quickly and seeped into the soil,” rather than running into the rivers.

In the spring, when the snow in the Wasatch Mountains starts to melt, the lake refills.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go.

“The lake usually goes up about 2 feet every year. It could be 3 or 4 feet in an awesome year,” Vernon said. “This year, it only went up 6 inches. So it just never had a chance.”

The mountains got less precipitation over the fall and winter, Vernon said, and the upstream diversions that hold water rights took their share from the three major rivers that flow into the lake — the Jordan, Weber and Bear. After that, she said, “there was very little left for the lake.”

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