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Water now spilling over emergency causeway berm in the Great Salt Lake

By Ben Winslow - Fox 13 | May 3, 2023
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Crews use an excavator to move stones at the Great Salt Lake Causeway to raise the berm by 4 feet in July. The higher berm is expected to help the health of the lake, experts say.
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Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

PROMONTORY POINT, Utah — It’s a sight that has railroad workers and state water officials smiling.

Water is spilling over an emergency berm in Union Pacific Railroad’s causeway across the Great Salt Lake. What that means is lake levels have risen to the point where water is again reaching the north arm of the lake.

“When we started this project, I don’t think anybody had anticipated the snowpack this year, so we’re incredibly excited,” Ben Stireman, the sovereign lands administrator for Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands, said in an interview with FOX 13 News at the berm on Tuesday.

The causeway berm was raised four feet earlier this year to help protect the south arm of the Great Salt Lake from ecological collapse. When the lake hit a historic low last year, salinity levels started to increase.

“The ecological collapse is a function of the salinity,” Stireman said.

Governor Spencer Cox issued an executive order, raising the berm. It temporarily cut off the north arm of the lake to prop up the south arm, where wildlife and people would be most impacted.

“This area here where we have the north arm and south arm connecting together? There was an opportunity to raise the berm, completely block the flows from south to north and vice-versa,” Stireman said, motioning to the berm.

The two arms of the lake are divided by the Union Pacific Railroad causeway. They are visually distinctive. The north arm is pink hued because of micro-organisms that live in the saltier area. The south arm is blue-green.

When the governor issued his order, Union Pacific did the work to raise the berm at no cost to taxpayers, Stireman said. Railroad workers have also noticed the lake’s dramatic declines in recent years.

“Just like everyone, we worry that the lake’s… it’s in dire straits,” said Michael Stanton, a manager at Union Pacific Railroad.

Thanks to Utah’s record snowfall this year, the Great Salt Lake has risen about four feet. It is still six feet below what is considered a minimum healthy level. With more snow still melting, it is possible the lake rises another few feet this year. The water spilling over the top of the berm means it is also helping the north arm of the Great Salt Lake again, but state officials don’t plan to lower the berm for now.

“As you see the water spilling over, if it ends up equaling out there will be no need to reduce the height of the berm,” Stireman said. “But if we do end up with a difference in elevation between the south and north arm at the end of runoff season, we will likely release water to the north arm.”

Stanton, who accompanied FOX 13 News out to the causeway on Tuesday, said railroad workers were willing to do what is needed to help the lake.

“It makes you feel good,” he said. “Makes you feel good knowing we accomplished something for our neighbors. We’re neighbors. Anything we can do to help.”


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