Portions of Great Salt Lake hit record-low after years of declining water levels

Posted at 9:38 PM, Nov 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-04 09:00:49-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Great Salt Lake has hit yet another record low, according to new data.

October marked the lowest water levels for the north arm of the lake in the U.S. Geological Survey's recorded history. Lake waters have been on the decline for years.

The evidence of declining water levels is highly visible at the Great Salt Lake Marina. Docks float on empty waters, with no boats along the edges.

Just as many boats sit in the parking lot of the marina as in the actual marina waters.

"We're in trouble here, as far as the sailboat recreation on the lake," said Harbormaster Dave Shearer.

The data backs up Shearer's feeling.

"We've hit a low point," said Craig Miller, an engineer specialist with the Utah Division of Water Resources. "The lake now has less water than it did in [the] previous low."

The north arm seems to be having the most issues with shrinking water.

"Every day it's kind of been setting a new record low," said USGS hydrologist Cory Angeroth. "This is the lowest level that we've recorded in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake."

Officially, the level sits at 4,189.2 feet above sea level. The USGS said at this time last year, the north arm sat at 4,190.0 feet. Compare that to the 1987 historic high, at 4,211.2 feet.

For the south arm, Angeroth said it hit a record low of 4,191.35 in 1963.

"The south arm of the lake right now is about a foot higher than it was at its historic low," he explained.

The level now measures 4,192.3 feet, nearly the same as the 4,192.6 recorded this time last year. The south arm, the USGS said, also hit a historic high in the 80s, 1986 to be exact, at 4,211.6 feet above sea level.

Miller said a number of factors push the water levels down, including a years-long drought and agriculture. He said weather is one of the biggest reasons the lake is shrinking.

Photos from NASA from 2001, 2003 and 2013 show the whopping difference in the water levels.

NASA also released new photos on Thursday, that compare Farmington Bay in 2011to September of 2016.

The bay looks more or less like a beach with a river running through it now. Miller said studies show the Great Salt Lake might not be done shrinking.

"The lake could go even lower," he said. "You could have large areas that are now exposed, and maybe subject to windblown dust."

The impact would certainly hit the economy, he said. Miller cited the billion-dollar mineral industry, and a $300 million brine shrimp industry as taking serious hits.

The Department of Natural Resources said the state is currently in meetings to figure out how to handle this all-time low, and to determine what can be done if the water levels continue to drop. The Great Salt Lake Marina can see some of the impact now.

Shearer said many of the larger boats haven't been able to dock in two years. There's a plan to dredge the marina, but he said it faces hangups.

"When this project started about two years ago, we were quite a bit higher on water level than we are now," Shearer said.

The legislature set aside $1.5 million for the project, he said, but the new lower levels could change the price.

"To do everything that what we want to do, would require more money," he said.

Still, Shearer said he hoped for dredging in the spring. By then, the waters could rise a bit.

But it's hard to predict how much.

"Only Mother Nature can tell us," Shearer said.