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Drought Cuts Season Short for Great Salt Lake Boaters

Judy Fahys

Drought is shrinking the Great Salt Lake. So, boat owners enlisted a big crane this week to haul their boats out of the water.

Brad Silver’s bonds with the Great Salt Lake go deep. His family actually built the Great Salt Lake Marina in the 1960s, and his bedroom was a boat here when he was a teen. He can’t recall the last time the lake was this low -- he was just a tot. But lately the bottom of his sailboat’s been digging into the floor of the harbor where so many family adventures began.

He and his wife Tammy are having the six-ton boat hoisted onto a storage trailer.

“It’s a huge part of our life. To pull it out is kinda sad,” Tammy Silver said. “It is emotional. A lot of the reason why is because of the community out here. It’s like a family out here. So, you’re missing all of that along with the memories you have and the good times you share on the boat.”

Other boat owners are facing the same unhappy decision after a drought trend of 14 years. Twenty boats already have quit the marina, one of two public boat sites on the Great Salt Lake.

Dave Shearer, harbormaster at the Great Salt Lake Marina, says he can’t remember a time when shallow water has driven boats out in mid-season.

“But this year is a little exceptional because the water is lower than we’ve had since 1963,” he says. “And a lot of people don’t want to see their keels in the mud all winter not knowing what’s going to happen next year, too.”

Scientists at the Utah Climate Center say this is probably just the beginning of a downward trend for the Great Salt Lake. After studying wet-and-dry cycles going back over a thousand years, they are projecting that the lake could slump another five feet over the next five years.

Credit Judy Fahys / KUER
The crane has lifted around 20 boats out of the Great Salt Lake Marina so far this season because drought has left lake levels so low.

  For Brad Silver, it’s not just about the sailboat.

“It feels like when I got laid off from my job,” he says. “You know, there’s that hole in your stomach that’s just sad, knowing that we might not be going back for another five years or even ever. I don’t know. It all depends on the weather.”

Scientists expect the Great Salt Lake won’t rebound for years --even if Utah’s mountains have a couple of good winters. 

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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