Long drought shrinking Great Salt Lake

Millions of shorebirds affected, as is boating

December 14, 2003|By Judith Graham | Judith Graham,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SALT LAKE CITY - As the sun begins to set, light pours from the sky like water from a tipped pitcher. The Wasatch Mountains glow mauve and pink against the deepening gray-blue dusk. Antelope Island seems to rise from the mist.

But where the fading rays of light should be glinting off darkening waters, there is no water to be seen, only cracked gray mud, with grasses turning brown along beaches where waves should be lapping.

The Great Salt Lake has disappeared here, just outside Salt Lake City, along the first mile of the causeway leading from the mainland to Antelope Island, a refuge for coyotes, bison, bobcats and antelope.

This is what things have come to in Utah as five years of drought has dried up rivers, sucked water out of reservoirs, parched fields, and turned forests into tinderboxes across the West. The largest lake west of the Mississippi River - usually about 75 miles long and 28 miles wide - has shrunk to its lowest level in 33 years, leaving longtime observers wondering how low it will go.

"We think the lake will bounce back; that's the way it's always worked," said Leroy Carter, commodore of the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, which lost membership this year, with large boats unable to traverse the lake's shallow waters.

"But you do wonder, is this the drought that will cause the Great Salt Lake to mostly dry up?"

What's happening at Great Salt Lake is being repeated across the Southwest and Rocky Mountains, as unseasonably warm weather and low precipitation have caused ski resorts to delay openings, fields to lie barren, and forest fires to erupt much later than usual.

At Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, drought has exposed parts of canyons that had been submerged for 30 years. Lake Powell is slightly less than half-full after five years of drought on the Colorado River system.

According to the federal Bureau of Reclamation, water levels in the Colorado River Basin are expected to drop 15 to 20 feet more next year, tightening supplies for thirsty farms and cities. California's recent agreement to limit its consumption of Colorado River water underscores the situation's seriousness.

In Utah, the state hit hardest by drought this year, a spell of snow and rain last month made little difference to the Great Salt Lake.

The land is so dry that any moisture is being absorbed instead of staying on the surface or becoming runoff, says Rob Baskin, scientific information manager at the U.S. Geological Survey's Utah office.

The Great Salt Lake is at 4,195 feet, slightly above its 1970 low of 4,194 feet above sea level. Because the lake is so shallow - not much deeper than 20 to 30 feet on average - even a 1-foot drop can expose a significant amount of land at its shores.

Besides lost recreational opportunities, shrinkage could be a big problem for the millions of shorebirds - white pelicans, California gulls, eared grebes, and more - that depend on the Great Salt Lake's wetlands and islands as a nesting ground or migration stopover point.

The lake has no outlet, and when its waters evaporate and inflows from freshwater rivers are reduced by drought, its salt content rises, wetlands are diminished, and the ecology of bird habitats is disturbed.

Access to previously protected areas is another issue.

"We're concerned that sensitive bird and waterfowl habitat is being exposed to people going out on the lake bed in ATVs [all-terrain vehicles] or predators crossing over into areas normally surrounded by water," said Lynn de Freitas, president of the non-profit Friends of Great Salt Lake.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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