Back in 1877, workers at the Barnes and Co. Salt Works on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah, said they’d spotted a Loch Ness-like monster in their own salty waters. They said it had a body like a crocodile and a head like a horse.
If that sounds improbable, here’s a fact that makes it all but impossible. Loch Ness is 745 feet deep. Even back in 1877, the deepest parts of the Great Salt Lake went down less than 50 feet. Not much space for such a “monster” to frolic in, and that was a long time ago. The lake has gotten a lot shallower since.
The latest measurements show the Great Salt Lake with an average water depth of about 15 feet, with the deepest spots about under about 35 feet of water. The lake has been shrinking virtually from the time it was first measured, in 1847, to today.
But a combination of climate change-driven drought and diversions of water for human developments, industrial, commercial and residential have upped the tempo of the drying.
Because the lake is so shallow, fluctuations in water levels are dramatic. The highest water levels ever recorded came in 1988, when the lake covered approximately 3300 square miles, almost twice as big an area as is considered “normal” — 1700 square miles. The previous record for low water was set during the drought year of 1963, but that record’s gone bust this year. By late July, the Great Salt Lake was down to 950 square miles little more than half of “normal.”
Here’s a simple measure of what that means. The Great Salt Lake, surrounded by a backdrop of often snow-capped mountains, is a beautiful sight, and along its shores there are park benches for people to sit and take all that beauty in. Once they sat at the shore of the lake. Today, it takes 10 minute to walk from some of the benches to the water’s edge.
The lake is vital to Utah’s state economy. It’s a site for mineral mining, recreational sailing, and commercial boating for brine shrimp and their eggs called cysts. In all, the Great Salt Lake produces 7000 jobs and $1.3 billion a year in earnings. As the lake dries up, so do the benefits.
Lindsay Whitehurst reports for the Associated Press from Salt Lake City and points beyond. Also mom of two, sometime hiker and microbrew appreciator.