If you had to start a new Western state from scratch and you got to choose a natural landmark that would become its symbol – something that could drive tourism and that you might name the capital city after – would you choose the Great Salt Lake?
People get their dander up when I ask things like that. “The lake is fantastic,” they say in a defensive tone.
Well, no argument here. I can think of several
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reasons why it’s a wonderful landmark in a complicated and remarkable desert ecosystem.
But doggoned it, at least the Grand Canyon stays the same size from year to year. Yes, I know it’s gradually eroding, but you can be fairly confident that the walk from the parking lot to the edge of the thing is about the same today as it was the last time you visited.
Not so with the lake.
Thirty years ago you had to make sure your doors were closed tight so the lake didn’t invade your personal space while driving down I-80. Today, you can park off the highway and wear out a pair of shoes trying to find it.
And yet there are few landmarks as important to their state as this one. What I said a couple of paragraphs ago about the ecosystem becomes especially important when you consider that, if we could choose not to have the lake, life out here would be a lot less hospitable, if not quite as smelly. Tourism, hunting, recreation and industry would suffer. Even the ski industry would die if it didn’t have the lake-effect storms that regularly dump snow in the mountains.
But the lake is in trouble. Eighteen months ago I sounded an alarm when the level hit 4,193.8 feet above sea level, noting that the all-time recorded low was 4,191.3 feet. But now, as of Tuesday, the north shore was at 4,189.2 feet. The south end was still above record stages, but maybe not for long. The Union Pacific Railroad is planning to breach the causeway, which will lower southern levels.
A Deseret News story on Saturday said the level is getting so low the park no longer will be able to send its search and rescue boat out if someone is in trouble.
Anyone who has been here awhile knows about weather cycles, but after 15 years of more or less continuous drought, and with a growing population diverting water upstream, will it ever get back to previous levels?
“Nobody knows that except Mother Nature,” Jason Curry, spokesman for the state Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands told me. Every time someone forecasts a wet winter, he says his ears perk up.
“But we can’t plan for a best-case scenario.”
Laura Ault, sovereign lands program manager for the division told me about an effort underway to create a model that will help everyone understand the effects of what the lake does. She also told of a collaborative effort among stakeholders to find strategies. The division gives out $200,000 in grants yearly to study the lake. The public may not spend a lot of time thinking about lake levels, but a lot of other people do.
The trouble is, as far as lakes go, this one has a lot of moving parts, from industry to recreation and the fragile environment. Solutions aren’t simple. Eighteen months ago I suggested Utahns needed to do more to conserve water. That’s still a good idea for a number of reasons, but it probably wouldn’t do much to boost lake levels.
“We always want to find silver-bullet solutions,” Curry said. “Here is problem A, and here is solution B. The trouble is, we have problems A, B, C, D, E … I could go on. We need a comprehensive approach that addresses every letter simultaneously.”
Of course, a few good winters would be nice.
Truth is, a lot of folks have gone broke betting they could outsmart the lake. The old Saltair, the one in the picture books with the big bands and the people floating around, is just one example.
Maybe climate change and growth have finally changed things for good, but I doubt it. As landmarks go, this one has a mind of its own. And as symbols for a people go, that’s not such a bad thing.