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Great Salt Lake water level dipping to lowest mark ever, officials express concern

By Tim Vandenack standard-Examiner - | Jul 1, 2021
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The Great Salt Lake water level is hovering around a historic low and should dip below the figure in coming days, Utah officials said Thursday, July 1, 2021. This April 29, 2019, photo shows the Great Salt Lake's Ogden Bay.

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The dry lake bed of the Great Salt Lake cracks along the edges of Antelope Island on Thursday, July 26, 2018. Much of Utah's water policy dates back to the early 20th century. As the population grows along the Wasatch Front and the climate changes, less and less water makes it to the Great Salt Lake.

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A small peninsula off of Gunnison Island rises out of the north arm of the Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, Mar. 8, 2017. The isolated north arm of the lake is so salty that the water has reached concentration and salt builds up on every nearby surface. The only thing that can survive in the water is a bacteria which gives the water a reddish color.

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Cara Wright, 6, fishes for brine shrimp along the beach at Antelope Island State Park with help from Karen Roberson on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015. Roberson, a park ranger aide, put on a "beach basics" class to teach visitors about the Great Salt Lake.

The ongoing drought isn’t just threatening the green of Utah residents’ lawns.

More significantly, the conditions also figure in the declining water level at the Great Salt Lake, now about as low as it’s ever been since records were kept.

“The new normal is climate change with lower snowpacks,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, a nonprofit group that lobbies for protection of the state’s watersheds. The upshot of that is less water flowing through the rivers that feed the Great Salt Lake and a dip in the level of the lake this week to below 4,190.8 feet above sea level, he said, the lowest it’s ever been since records started being kept. The prior low was 4,191.35 feet above sea level, registered in 1963.

Frankel used the occasion to sound a message about the importance of taking steps to address climate change and, more generally, conserve water. Diversion of water for human use from the rivers that feed the lake also factors in the decline in its level, tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey. “We shouldn’t blame Mother Nature for what’s happening now. We’ve caused the problems and we need to solve it,” he said Thursday.

State officials took issue with the figures Frankel cited in saying the water level of the Great Salt Lake has dipped below the lowest mark ever before recorded. Still, the Utah Division of Water Resources acknowledged in a statement Thursday that the level is on track to dip below 4,191.35 feet above sea level “in the coming days.” And both Gov. Spencer Cox and Brian Steed, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, expressed concern.

“The pending milestone is concerning,” Steed said in a statement. “Utah is growing faster than any other state in the country, and water demand is at an all-time high. Coordination and cooperation are key to solving this unique challenge.”

Cox called the decline in the lake’s water level “a sobering reminder” of the impact of the ongoing drought, which has prompted calls for the public to cut back on lawn watering. He also noted rising demand for water as the state grows. “As a state and as policy leaders, it’s necessary to continue our work together to find solutions that balance Utah’s growth and water needs with the importance of maintaining a healthy and sustainable Great Salt Lake,” Cox said in a statement.

According to Kim Wells, spokesperson for the Division of Water Resources, the water level figure Frankel cited, 4,190.8 feet above sea level, reflects one of the instantaneous readings made every 15 minutes. The division uses daily averages to track the Great Salt Lake water levels, which it maintains are more accurate and haven’t yet dipped under the record 4,191.35 feet low.

Either way, the Great Salt Lake water level, which peaked at 4,211.6 feet above sea level in 1988, is on the decline. Wells said anecdotal records of the lake’s levels have been kept since 1847 and “scientific” records have been kept since 1875. On July 1, 1990, the Great Salt Lake surface level was 4,203.2 feet above sea level and that dipped to 4,202.4 feet on July 1, 2000, 4,195.5 feet on July 1, 2010, and 4,194.1 feet on July 1 last year, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

Frankel said the reading he cited, 4,190.8 feet above sea level, probably isn’t yet the floor. “It’s going to continue dropping,” he said, until at least the fall, when seasonal precipitation typically starts boosting the lake’s water levels.

But even if the level rebounds, Frankel said the lake level, generally speaking, is trending downward. That tendency underscores the importance of water conservation, he went on, lamenting that Utah hasn’t done enough in that regard. “The question is, when are Utah leaders going to have the courage needed to create policies to get us out of the problem we find ourselves in with water waste?” he said.

Frankel expressed particular alarm with the Bear River Development project, which calls for diversion of the water in that river and its tributaries to address future Northern Utah water needs. That project, he maintains, would further lower the Great Salt Lake water level.

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