Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The not so great Great Salt Lake


                        The dry docks at Antelope Island State Park.

THE Great Salt Lake isn't what it used to be.
In the mid-1980s, the GSL was a monster, out of control and threatening to flood the Salt Lake International Airport and I-80.
Now some 3 decades later, the lake is far smaller and the opposite is true -- what will low lake levels do to human health and wildlife?
Scientists of the late 19th Century really believed the Great Salt Lake was shrinking and would one day vanish. Several cycles over the next century proved they were wrong, or so it seemed.
With more and more lake inflow being diverted for irrigation and a historic drought in progress, those scientists might be more right than not.

                                       Antelope Island Boat Docks.

The lake's elevation as of this writing, on Oct. 13, 2015, is 4,192.6 feet above sea level. That's just 1.3 feet above its all-time measured low of 4,191.3 feet in 1963.
The GSL's all-time high mark was 4,211.6 feet in both 1986 and 1987, when the ballyhooed lake pumps were operating on its western shores.
The "average" elevation has always been considered to be 4,200 feet above sea level. However, now the reality is that average may no longer be valid. Sometime more like 4,194 feet above sea level might be more accurate for the 21st Century.

 One could walk to Fremont Island now, as the lake level is now almost 1.5 feet lower than what it needs to be for a huge natural sandbar, off the Antelope Island Causeway, to be above water.

What does a low lake mean?

-The deepest spot, more like a hole in the Great Salt Lake, is located just northwest of Fremont Island and south of the Lucin Cutoff railroad causeway. This spot is 34 feet deep when the lake is at that "normal" 4,200-foot elevation. Yet, now that deepest spot is just 15 feet.

-Antelope Island and Fremont Island in particular are no longer truly islands and are connected to land. Peninsula would be a more accurate term now -- Antelope Peninsula and the Fremont Peninsula.
A road or solid causeway to Fremont Island, assuming one had the money and state/environmental permission, would be far easier and cheaper to create now.

-The GSL can produce much more blowing dust now. From possible toxic chemicals to rumors of "pickled" sewage in the lakebed from before sewage treatment plans are possibilities.

                    The almost dry Farmington Bay from Frary Peak ridge.

-The dreaded "Lake effect" of winter snow storms is likely tuned down now. This effect could have less than half the punch it did 30 years ago.

-Less bird habitat is now available with less lake water and less inflow.

-The Great Salt Lake pumps are really relics now and have no need.

-The manmade causeway to Antelope Island and the Lucin Cutoff causeway will face far less erosion in the future.

-Boating on the GSL is more questionable now. Some marinas may be high and dry. Since the deepest lake spot is now just 15 feet, the average depth for boats may be closer to less than 10 feet and some too shallow for boats spots may exist here and there.

                Desolate salt flats around the Great Salt Lake are no mirages these days.

 Any upside to a lower GSL?

-Now might be a good time to explore the feasibility of another "Willard Bay" -- a diked off fresh water reservoir on the lake's former eastern shore. Perhaps one at Farnington Bay and another at the Salt Lake County end of the lake's footprint, would be possible ways to store excess runoff in the spring (assuming there is enough of that). 

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: lynnarave@comcast.net


  1. Is that hole the same one that kept sucking in all the Piles when they were making the Lucin cut off? The one they went around when they make the permanent cut off?

  2. It is just the deepest hole in all the Great Salt Lake. It may not be the troublesome one for when the trestle was first built in the early 1900s, but that entire section of the GSL is probably overall the deepest of all.