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Low Water Creates Great Salt Lake Experiment

Boat owners have been having larger watercraft removed from the Great Salt Lake marinas because of declining lake levels. It's just one impact seen among the lake's $1.3 billion in annual economic activity.

A one-of-its-kind science experiment is in the making as the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake hits its lowest level in modern history.

Thirteen miles of railroad track stretches between Promontory Point and Lakeside on the western shore of the Great Salt Lake, and the rock causeway supporting those tracks has made water levels fall in the lake’s northern arm to the lowest level ever measured. Water in the south arm is now two feet higher.

“I think the most interesting thing that’s going on in the lake right now is the fact that the culverts have been closed on the railroad causeway,” Cory Angeroth, who leads the water surveillance team of the U-S Geological Survey in Utah. “So, the north arm and south arm are really separate lakes right now.”

The divide has disrupted mineral extraction and brine shrimping -- key parts of the lake’s one-point-three-billion-dollar economic impact. The railroad’s building a new breach in the causeway to get water flowing again between the two sides next spring. Scientists like Angeroth will be measuring the salty lake’s response.

“Being able to show where we’re at right now in respect to where we’ve been in the past is very important information,” he says.

Angeroth says decision-makers can use the data to determine what’s the smartest way to manage the lake’s resources.

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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