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Utah boaters' optimism swells with rising levels on Great Salt Lake

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John Everhardt repaints the bottom of his sailboat on Friday, May 12, 2017, at the Great Salt Lake Marina. Everheardt says it has been four years since he put his boat in the Great Salt Lake since the water has been so low. The boat is scheduled to be back in the water later in May as the water levels rise and the marina gets dredged.

John Everhardt spent a warm, breezy Friday afternoon at the Great Salt Lake Marina State Park painting and sealing the hull of his boat.

After four years of being marooned, his sailboat is going back in the water.

“I have a nice boat, but it’s been four years of neglect. So there’s lots of work to do,” he said.

Normally sailors leave their ships in the marina’s slips year-round since the salty lake doesn’t freeze. But Everhardt’s boat was pulled, along with hundreds of others, due to years of drought, a dropping Great Salt Lake and decades of silt build-up at the bottom of the marina.

Everhardt has been sailing for 30 years. Taking a few years off was tough.

“I’ve been doing other things. I have an RV. I’m retired,” he said. “But this is one of my passions.”

The marina is finally getting dredged and an extraordinarily wet winter has brought above-average spring runoff to the lake. As the lake level rises, it’s lifting spirits at the marina, too.

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A sailboat returns to the Great Salt Lake Marina on Friday, May 12, 2017.

“The place is coming alive again,” said Dave Shearer, the marina’s harbormaster. “There was a lot of doubt about whether the lake would ever come back up.”

Worries surged two years ago when the Utah Legislature appropriated $1.5 million to dredge the marina at Utah Lake but didn’t reserve a dime to dredge the Great Salt Lake. Boaters and businesses based at the marina, on the lake’s southern shore, put up a fight.

At the eleventh hour of the session, lawmakers caved and came up with another $1.5 million to dredge both marinas. Still, between all the contractor bids, engineering and environmental review by the Army Corps of Engineers, it took more than two years for dredging at the Great Salt Lake to start.

“We lost a lot of good slip renters that just gave up,” Shearer said.

Things looked bleak right through the beginning of last winter, when state officials decided to move forward with breaching the lake’s railroad causeway. The rock-filled berm had to be completely closed a few years ago due to structural issues. That was also when the most recent drought set in and lake levels started to recede, eventually teetering at a record low.

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Sailboats are stored in the parking lot on Friday, May 12, 2017, at the Great Salt Lake Marina. Around 50 boats are docked at the marina and more will go into the water in the late spring and summer as dredging continues.

By sealing off the causeway and cutting of the north arm from any fresh water, the south arm — where the marina is located — stayed artificially high, but it wasn’t enough for the boats. 

Dave Ghizzone, owner of Gonzo Boat Rentals and Tours, had to move his base of operations from Antelope Island to the marina because of the receding lake levels. By last winter, he was on the brink of having to end his dinner cruises.

The marina became too shallow for his ship. He feared the proposed breach would put him completely out of business. 

“I get real personal about it when things happen that are going to affect the lake,” he said. “I’m certainly not an environmentalist, but I’m starting to lean that way.”

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Dave Ghizzone discusses changing lake levels on Friday, May 12, 2017, while on board the dinner boat he operates out of the Great Salt Lake Marina. Ghizzone runs Gonzo Boat Rentals & Tours and has struggled with access to the lake as the water drops. In recent months, the lake level has risen quickly following a wet winter.

But the state also had pressure from businesses operating on the lake’s north end, namely Compass Minerals, and a federal permit deadline. On Dec. 1, they opened the breach.

RELATEDGreat Salt Lake causeway breach concerns mineral, brine shrimp industries

“We were at the second-lowest elevation we’ve been ever recorded,” Shearer said. “We were very concerned — they were predicting we’d lose a foot to a foot and a half due to the breach.”

Marina officials weren’t just concerned about what the breach would do to slip rental revenue, which typically generates between $275,000 to $325,000 in annual revenue for Utah State Parks. They worried about whether they’d be able to launch their rescue boats to aid stranded boaters or crashed airplanes.

“But what happened instead is they breached (the causeway) and literally the same day we started getting so much moisture,” Shearer said. “Then we started coming up so fast. It really had no impacts on our operation here.”

As of last Friday, a U.S. Geological Survey gauge at the marina measured the elevation at 4,195.2 feet. At the same time last spring, the water sat a foot lower. 

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When the water started to rise this spring, the marina also got the thumbs-up to begin dredging. The irony isn’t lost on Shearer, but he said dredging is necessary regardless of the lake’s capriciousness.

“The dredging was needed no matter what. The south basin is deeper than the north basin, and the north basin, because of how it’s positioned, gets silted in,” Shearer said.

The Great Salt Lake Marina hasn’t been dredged since 1980.

“It’s got 30 years of silt in there,” Shearer said. “Without dredging, some of those slips would still be useless.”

A dredging boat will be siphoning up that silt and pumping it 3.5 miles along the beach to a holding pond until around mid-June. In all, Shearer said they’ll remove around five feet from the marina’s north basin.

By the end of the month, cranes will lower 33 boats back into the marina, bringing the amount of ships back in the water to 385.

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Brett Loyola, left, and Justin Lucas hang out on Loyola's sailboat on Friday, May 12, 2017, at the Great Salt Lake Marina. All sailboats had been removed from the marina in recent years.

The dredging has put Ghizzone at ease for now.

“As long as they’re dredging, when it’s done, I’ll be fine. The Antelope Island (operation) might not be if the water goes back down, but here, since the dredging’s being done, I’ll be able to get that (dinner cruise) boat in and out, so I’m happy,” he said. “I’m smiling.”

He’s even expanding his operation to include sailboat rentals and a land-based restaurant near the marina’s visitor center. 

“We’ve got the interest; we’ve got the traffic. We’ve actually booked more cruises, tours and charters now than we’ve ever booked. It’s looking good for us,” he said. 

Still, Ghizzone said he’s aware of how many businesses have seen cycles of boom and bust along with the ebbs and flows of the lake — places like the Great Saltair, once located a few miles down the beach from the marina.

“If you look at the history of all the resorts that used to be down here … that’s what killed them, the lake level. When the lake comes up a foot, the shoreline moves 200 yards. And the same thing when it drops,” he said. “I’m too deep into it to quit, but I do still have this vision. I know it’ll work; I know there’s demand for it; I know we do a good job.”

Shearer expects a few more wet years to continue to give a boost to both the lake and the people spending time on its waters.

“Things are looking good,” he said. “The sailors are happy. They’re already on the water and enjoying this place. It’s amazing to see the attitude of this year — of hope — compared to last year — of despair.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter at @LeiaLarsen

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